The Greatest films of all time: 30. How Green was my Valley (1941)(USA)

Introduction:

“How Green was my Valley” film was adapted from a 1939 novel of the same title by Richard Llewellyn, about the suffrage of a mining community and the condition of the miners then in Wales, England. The film was directed by John Ford, the most productive American film directors to this day, who was more popular for westerns than dramas. But surprisingly, Ford the most Oscar winning of any filmmakers, with four awards, did not win any for his popular westerns, but for his four dramas of “The Informer” in 1935, “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and the following year in 1941 for “How green was my valley” and finally after 11 years of making many other films, mostly westerns, for “The quiet man” in 1952, another drama with his favorite actor, John Wayne. “How green was my valley” was the only of these four that won the best picture award in 1941, beating “Citizen Kane” for that and even cinematography.

 

Another iconic realism on screen:

The popularity of this film and Ford’s previous one, a year before, “The Grapes of Wrath” in winning awards, fame and respect for the filmmaker, was for the sheer fact that they were made at the right time, the time of war demanding realism and true stories of people’s sufferings. While the film was initially planned to be in color and at the location in Wales, it was filmed in black and white and on an 80 acres made up studio in the Santa Monica Mountains. This privileged the film with such a strong cinematography of unique depth that felt in the hearts of American audience and truly won the academy awards.

 

This film with its harsh realism and strong in depth cinematography set the stage for the future realistic and neo-realistic films not just in US, but in Europe after the second world war, particularly in Italy and France, by the great filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. That is why John Ford has been a subject of great accolade by his filmmaker colleagues around the globe such as Ingmar Bergman who believed he is “the best director in the world”; by Frank Capra as “the king of directors”; by Alfred Hitchcock who called his films “visual gratification”; by Akira Kurosawa “I have respected John Ford from the beginning…I am influenced by him.”; by Satiajit Ray “…the nearest description of Ford’s would be a combination of strength and simplicity”; and by Orson Welles “I like the old masters, by which I mean John ford, John ford and John ford.” Ford also influenced so many other great filmmakers of the future years such as Elia Kazan, Federico Fellini, Jean Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Jean Renoir, and Martin Scorsese among others. If John Ford did not get attracted to the western films, and had continued creating more cinematic realisms such as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How green was my valley”, not only he would have put up himself higher in the cinematic creation, but the American cinema at a higher place!

 

The film centers around the Morgan family of seven boys and a girl in a small Welsh mining village. The opening scene is when the youngest of Morgan’s son, Huw in a later adult age over-voicing while leaving “…my valley and this time, I shall never return.” Then in a flashback to the past, we see the Morgan’s family, how relatively happy they were despite the hardship of working all in the mine with the minimum wages. When they all come home blackened by the cruel mine and more so by the mine owners, the wife or mother sitting by the house entrance get all their wages, then they all wash up, eat and leave for the pub to drink off their sweats and a hard day work. We see the whole hard working people of the village as one big family, who share their pains, suffering, hard work, then their joy at the pub, and at the wedding of the eldest son of Morgan’s.

The valley is not green, but all black by the coal mine, though it is green in the memory of Huw Morgan, the youngest son and the story teller of the film in a flashback. It was green, despite all the hardships, as the family were still together, until the wages suddenly dropped and not enough to live by, and separated not just the Morgan’s family whose three of their sons, could not tolerate the enslaving labor like their pacifist father and left their home and the valley. It is not only the Morgan’s family who are divided but the whole village and the workers, once a grand family, now some feuds to those who can get the work, or work despite the protest of the others. This is at the time before the institution of the workers’ unions that took long time to evolve for the protection of the rights of workers partially against the tyranny of the capital.

 

If cinema still could make such a beautiful film, in an extraordinary black and white cinematography, telling the story of people’s life even at the present time that is not better than the past, instead of tons of ridiculous and unrealistic “reality shows”, that would have saved her from falling as an art medium. The film coherent beautifully with its story, cinematography and a very matched soundtrack, is like a masterpiece painting unbelievable to come out of American cinema. It is clearly a prototype of many future films on similar subject of mass sufferings and else such as “On the Waterfront”, coming years later but rarer and rarer over time from Hollywood. Although there are acting, but it all looks like a “mass acting”, a general act by all with no leading role. The film at times feels like a fairy tale, but a dark and at the same time pleasant one, not for the hardship and sufferings but for the cohesion of the mass.

 

The beautiful few symbolisms in the film such as hopping of the two birds through the window to the bedside of the little Huw Morgan, as a sign of spring coming and the end of his paralytic illness, is heart warming. Then the group of people singing and bringing flowers to the cured mother and Huw after a winter long sickness, and at the same time the return of the family four sons who had left home earlier are all brilliant in making. Inviting the whole village to eat in their small house by Morgans is another memorable depiction of simple kind hearts on the screen.

 

The film contains quite a few prototype scenes such as the revolutionary beliefs and behaviors of the priest (Walter Pidgeon) who supports the establishment of the workers’ union. Also the unconventional story of love between the Morgan’s only daughter, “Angharad” (Maureen O’Hara) with the preacher, despite not being fulfilled, is another beautiful, unconventional piece of cinema to be adapted in other future films. The bullying of Huw, as the only member of the Morgan’s family attempting at education, by other mean boys, is a very well known prototype of similar bullying behaviors ins schools, prisons and else. The final scene of the narration by the older Huw recalling “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.”, and ending with a montage of family vignettes remembering the whole family together, is clearly another original beautiful cinematic piece staying on minds and hearts of the viewers for years to come.

 

Conclusion:

In closing remarks “How Green was my Valley” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “How Green was my Valley” is original in many aspects as detailed somewhat above, specially for its unrepeatable cinematography, unmistakable work of John Ford and several cinematic prototypes offered to the world of cinema.
  2. Technicality: “How Green was my Valley” while telling a story of suffering very beautifully, is quite technical in its imagery, for what cinema is and should be. Its cinematography and perfect direction by John Ford to put every piece together as it should be that it was is all technical at its best. While very technical as it was the style of John Ford, the film is so simple, the some may not see its amazing technicality, which is the next higher level of mastery of the director. The film is unlike some other technical films that technicality oozes out of the screen and what is remembered at the end is a bunch of techniques and not the content, or in a better word the content is lost in technicality.  
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “How Green was my Valley” on other films and specially filmmakers is needless to say as they all have been said by other filmmakers. In fact when other filmmakers comment on a film or a filmmaker, that is closest to the true of the matter than when critics comment, as critics know nothing of filmmaking, but filmmakers know better their own kinds. So the impact of this film like “The Grapes of wrath” and John Ford’s work need to be reviewed and appreciated by other filmmakers, such as Cline Eastwood whose favorite film is “How Green was my Valley”.  
  4. Survival: “How Green was my Valley” has survived well to this very day, through its many adaptations of its prototypes, in the world cinema more than Hollywood, specially the Italian neo-realism and French realism film movements. The film could still be watched by today’s viewers and liked and not even being bored to be in black and white, but not to believe that could have been made otherwise in color!  
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