Strange That The Mind Will Forget So Much: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Poor How Green Was My Valley might have the single worst rap in the history of cinema.  Standing in as the film that beat out Citizen Kane at the Oscars many people dismiss it purely on the assumption that because it is a Oscar win that the film is somehow less legitimate, a feeling that is mounted tenfold against the work that beat out what was for quite some time the greatest film in ever made.  While Citizen Kane is the superior film and easily out delivers this film by lightyears, How Green Was My Valley was part of a rather respectable year of filmmaking one that saw the two films already noted competing against the likes of Sergeant York and The Maltese Falcon, for the latter its own place within the canon of cinema is equally well-established and could just have easily won.  Mind you Sergeant York is no film to be ignored either.  I say all this in a roundabout way as to claim that How Green Was My Valley is quite good, indeed, it evokes the likes of a ton of different European auteurs, notably Bergman, Bresson and De Sica, while also having a nod or two to the expressionist era as would be in line with Welles work of the same year.  All this is working within the same space and is orchestrated by John Ford, a filmmaker whose career is well-documented and incredibly storied, but also happens to be more closely tied to his prolific work within the Western.  In all its sentimental, coming-of-age glory, How Green Was My Valley could well have been a stand alone classic that was mention in the same breath as Citizen Kane, were it not to suffer the fate of coming out the same year and also winning a rather arbitrary Best Picture Oscar.  Those who have seen How Green Was My Valley know that it is nothing short of cinematic perfection itself, not necessarily reinventing the language of film in the way its competitor did, but certainly showing that when fully realized the methodology at play within this type of filmmaking could result in pure moviegoing glee and fulfillment, taking strides to recreate both the most abject moments of existence, alongside the moments when happiness is alive and well.  Amidst a non-American setting and a poignant religious allegory, How Green Was My Valley is what one should seek out when hoping to better understand Classic Hollywood.  Citizen Kane is the divergence of genius, whereas this film is the working within the confines to its most realized.

How Green Was My Valley focuses via an trans-temporal narrative on the memories and experiences of Huw Morgan (voiced by Irving Pichel and acted by Roddy McDowall) the youngest boy of the Morgan family, whose entire male line is tied to the mining community of their remote Welsh village.  Headed by the religiously stern, but absolutely loving father Gwilym (Donald Crips) the Morgans strive to be respectable members of the community, all predicated on their children Ianto (John Loder), Ivor (Patric Knowles), Davy (Richard Frasser) and Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) all following in line.  Indeed, all the Morgan boys work at the mine, making considerable money for the family, much of which Gwilym allows them to spend freely, yet when workers from other areas arrive, willing to work for next to nothing, economic prosperity begins to dwindle and the sons begin traveling as far as America to find work.  Huw who is far too young to work stays at home with his mother Beth (Sara Allgood) and helps keep watch over the house.  Tragically, however, a horse accident leaves Huw crippled indefinitely, causing him to understand the world from the space of his window sill bed.  During this time the various sons return and young Angharad becomes the object of romantic pining for local priest Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon). Gruffydd is a far cry from the more conservative clergymen that have occupied the town in the past, both willing to party and drink with the workers, as well as openly sharing in their sentiments when it comes to creating unions and opposing the harsh and swift overpowering of their town by greedy mine owners.  Given Huw's injury his time to enter the mines is prolonged, instead being sent to school, where he becomes rough and tumble in the face of becoming the object of ridicule for persons who find his working class status despicable, most notably his own teacher.  Yet, with the help of family friends he becomes a powerful boxer and eventually does decide to work in the mines himself.  It is during his work in the mine that his father becomes trapped in the rocks, becoming so severely injured as to die in the mines.  This, however, does not occur before one last bonding between the two, one that is remember fondly and trans-temporally between the young Huw and his narrating future self.

How Green Was My Valley shares a lot in common with one of the first films I reviewed here on the blog Summer of '42, in so much as both offer a distinct focus on how to tell the coming of age tale.  In both films cinematic elements like light melodramic music and notably soft lighting, allow for the idyllic to take precedence in the visual cinematic space.  Indeed, both main characters, Huw and Hermie in Summer of '42 are delightfully humorous characters, Huw attaching fondly to his family while Hermie clings ideally to his friends, all of which is overlaid by the longing remembrances of a disembodied narrator.  Neither film is content to stage itself completely in the ideal depiction of the past, because these are stories of world-weary adults looking back on the past, their ability to recontextualize previous occurrences meaning that innocent and irrelevant events take on completely different occurrences when remembered.  Take for example, the first encounter with Gruffydd, it is situated within the church and is suggested to be the moment wherein Huw's sister Angharad becomes enamored with the priest.  In an impossibly high-angled shot one would assume it to be Huw's point of vision, which is somewhat true because he is looking at Angharad look at Gruffydd, only further repurposed when one realizes that it is Huw looking back on this moment of discovery.  Yet, what makes Ford's creation of this dreamlike remembrance particularly thrilling is the acknowledgement that certain past events cannot be detached from their emotive elements.  This is realized in its most joyful manner when Huw learns to walk again with the aid of Gruffydd, the scene playing out in a valley with a heavy amount of lighting as if to create an angelic quality over the entire event.  In contrast, indeed, comes the discovery of his father in his last moments alive, the shadows and claustrophobic nature of the mine are creepy and the older Huw clearly looks back on this moment with all the anxiety that would have reflected the initial encounter, as it is undoubtedly a past occurrence that is still loaded with much negativity.  With all this in mind, there is still the closing shot, which seems to suggest not a memory, but a future space, one that has a distinctly astral quality about it.

Key Scene:  If you Google this film, you will get the image of Huw right after he has learned to walk again and this is deservedly so, it is absolutely beautiful cinematography.

While I watched this on DVD, I can only imagine that the bluray is exponentially more stunning.  You should pick it up and let me know how gorgeous it looks.

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