I’ll admit, How Green Was My Valley was mainly of interest to me because it beat out Citizen Kane. (I promise I’ll try not to go on and on about it too much.) While the reasons for this, at least to my understanding, seem to be purely political, I was still interested to see how they stacked up. How Green Was My Valley ends up being a pretty good film, very well executed, but a little bit lacking in the plot and focus department. This can be semi-forgiven when you consider that it’s seen through the eyes of a child, but even though that plays into the point of the film, it doesn’t make it much more enjoyable to watch.
Huw (Roddy McDowall) is a small boy living in a Welsh mining town. Voice over narration from Huw as an adult guides us through his memories. He fondly remembers the simple, happy time he had with his family growing up, and regrets the loss he can already see coming in his young age. The film covers a lot, from Huw’s eldest brother’s marriage to Bronwyn (Anna Lee), to a strike at the mines, through illness, schooling, immigration to America, and deaths. It definitely suffers from trying to cover too much without focusing on much of a pattern (other than simply the passage of time).
There is a considerable amount of strife in the family over the strike. Huw’s four grown up brothers all decide to strike, but their father (Donald Crisp) is ideologically against it. He believes that the mine owners are reasonable people and will come around, but the brothers all know that things will only get worse. Some of them (these brothers are like the dwarves in the Hobbit movies, except there are only four or five, you can’t tell them apart) take off to America to find better prospects. This happens in two waves, first half of them go, then the other half. This bring an uneasiness to the parents, and Huw makes a promise never to leave his mother’s (Sara Allgood) side.
There is also a lot of religious trouble in the film. Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) is the new preacher, and is more forgiving and understanding than the deacons, who decide to keep order in the town through fear. Huw’s only sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), falls in love with Mr. Gruffydd, who is a great friend to Huw, but he refuses to marry her because she will have to live in poverty. She ends up marrying the owner of the coal mines’ son, completely unhappily. Their unsuccessful marriage causes a scandal in the town, over no actual wrongdoing, and forces Mr. Gruffydd to leave. However, he doesn’t leave without telling the deacons off, giving one of the finest moments in the film. Pidgeon does a wonderful job with the speech, full of righteous anger.
Huw also has his own problems. Mr. Gryffudd starts giving him lessons, and they all decide that Huw will be able to go to a good school, far away from home and filled with upper class snobbery. The class, lead by the cruel teacher, picks on Huw incessantly. Huw, with encouragement from his father, decides to learn to box so he can stand up for himself. He enlists the help of a local ex-boxer Dai Bando (Rhys Williams) and his sidekick Cyfartha (Barry Fitzgerald, playing his normal lovably drunk character). These two serve for some pretty entertaining comic relief, and go into Huw’s class one day and beat the teacher up, pretending to give him a lesson on boxing. It sounds kind of terrible, but trust me, it’s pretty awesome. Huw learns how to stick up for himself and gains the respect of his classmates. However, when he graduates, he decides to become a coal miner like the men he has idolized all of his life, rather than pursue his education further. This causes some consternation in the family as his father wants Huw to have a better life, but his mother thinks he should stay.
I mentioned before that the unfocused nature of the film is probably due to Huw’s young viewpoint. The more I think about it, the more awkward it becomes to have him be the main character. I’m not sure if it would be better to have one of the adults be the main character, or just have it be more of an ensemble cast with no one as the main character. There are films where it works wonderfully to have a child be a witness to an adult world and trying to figure out what’s going on (To Kill A Mockingbird and Days of Heaven come to mind), but here it feels kind of forced. Some of the most powerful scenes in the movie are the one’s that focus on Huw’s troubles, like his starting a new school and learning how to walk after he falls in the ice. Other times, he’s not even present and it seems kind of strange because how is he remembering things he wasn’t present for? This happens in movies all the time, but probably because they took real pains to force Huw into some situations (when he went to see Angharad and the back to Mr. Gruffydd) but not into others, and it was a bit strange.
This is the fourth John Ford film I’ve seen, along with The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Stagecoach. At first glance, this might be a weird film for John Ford because like The Quiet Man, it’s not a Western. However, you can still kind of see why he would film this. The Welsh mining town bears some resemblance to the Irish one The Quiet Man, everyone knows each other, they’re all very close knit, and there are problems with the hierarchy. Also, many colorful characters. In How Green Was My Valley, you have many shots of people standing in doorways, not as dramatic as the famous ones in The Searchers, but more frequently. The shadows are beautiful, and you see a lot of ceilings (one of the main things Welles stole from Ford to include in Citizen Kane).
So How Green Was My Valley ended up being basically what I thought it was going to be: good, but not as good as Citizen Kane. That’s not really a big problem though, because Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films of all time. It ended up winning five out of ten academy awards: winning picture, director, supporting actor for Crisp, black and white cinematography, and black and white art direction, and losing out on supporting actress for Allgood, adapted screenplay, sound recording, film editing, and music. This is all fine, considering the bad press Welles and Kane had to deal with. There’s plenty to enjoy about the film, though the unfocused nature of it holds it back for me.
“But I am the child that was, and nobody knows how I felt, except only me.”
Long story short: 3/4
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