We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade with the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940′s
How Green Was My Valley, 1941. I know I’m supposed to favor John Ford’s westerns above all his other work, but in spite of my love of westerns, and in spite of my love of John Wayne, I favor How Green Was My Valley as Ford’s greatest achievement.
Set in a Welsh mining town at the turn of the century, this masterpiece tells the story of the Morgan family—mother, father, six brothers and one sister—and a way of life, disintegrating under the forces of modernity.
Told in flashback, the adult Huw (pronounced Hugh) looks back fifty years later on his childhood. The voice-over is sad, elegiac, evoking a vanished way of life.
Roddy MacDowell is Huw and the film is presented almost entirely from his child’s point of view. It’s a powerful device that lets us see his world from a limited, but deeply focused vantage point. The language of the film, narration and dialogue, are Shakespearian without being precious:
Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father, and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday. In those days, the black slag—the waste of the coalpits—had only begun to cover the side of our hill, not yet enough to mar the countryside nor blacken the beauty of our village. For the colliery had only begun to poke its skinny black fingers through the green. I can hear, even now, the voice of my sister Angharad.
Narration is one of the most difficult devices in the screenwriter’s arsenal. Often slowing the story to a crawl, the best choice for the screenwriter is to use narration as a way of setting the film’s tone and the means by which an extra layer of story is constructed. Well crafted narration adds depth, complexity and unexpected information to the image.
The story is episodic, but the narrative is smooth, held together by Huw’s lovely voice-over and the repeated emphasis on the everyday rituals in Huw’s tightly knit family. Family meals, formal and proper, are preceded by a prayer. Everyone eats in silence. In the parlor following dinner, a box is placed on a table before Mr. Morgan, beautifully played by the great Donald Crisp. The entire family gathers around, coins are handed to each of the children in order of their age. The youngest boy Huw is the last in line to receive a coin:
Huw’s narration adds dimension to the scene:
After dinner, when dishes had been washed, the box was brought to the table, for the spending money to be handed out. No one in our Valley had ever seen a bank. We kept our savings on the mantelpiece. My father used to say that money was made to be spent, just as men spend their strength and brains in earning it—and as willingly—but always with a purpose.
With a wide-eyed gaze Huw witnesses all the significant events that befall his family and village. There are wage cuts, unions organize, there are strikes, mine accidents, family struggles and the tragic, unrequited love affair between the local preacher, Walter Pidgeon, and Huw’s only sister, the stunning 19 year-old Irish actress Maureen O’Hara.
One of the most moving scenes shows Huw meeting Bronwyn, Anna Lee, his brother Ivor’s fiancee. She carries a basket on her hip and there’s a charming bonnet perched on her head. Huw is speechless in the face of this glowing country beauty:
It was on this afternoon that I first saw Bron—Bronwyn. She had come over from the next valley for her first call on my father and mother. I think I fell in love with Bronwyn then. Perhaps it is foolish to think a child could fall in love. But I am the child that was, and nobody knows how I felt, except only me.
Anna Lee would emerge as one of the most prominent women of Ford’s stock company. She was forgiving of Ford’s crusty personality and Ford’s warm feelings for Lee were magnified when she collapsed during a particularly heart wrenching scene and suffered a miscarriage. Lee had not told her director that she was pregnant. Nevertheless, Ford felt guilty over the tragedy. In the following years, at the start of every John Ford picture in which Lee appeared, Ford would line up cast and crew and ask Lee if she was pregnant.
“No sir,”she replied.
“I just wanted to make sure.”
How Green Was My Valley has all the elements of tragedy: hopeless love affairs, senseless death, poverty, cruel gossip, and the fracturing of family. But the fine script by Philip Dunne—after several false starts with other writers who emphasized the politics of the striking miners—based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn, manages to evoke hope and glory in a vision of a life that is no more but stands as an ideal to which we can all aspire.
Though John Ford was not responsible for developing the script—he replaced director William Wyler—Ford understood that the spine of the story was family and community as opposed to the collective which earlier drafts emphasized.
It was studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, a former screenwriter and the only early Hollywood mogul who was not Jewish, who understood the material, developed the script, and in the face of furious opposition from his N.Y. board of directors, insisted on making the film, even threatening to take the package to another studio. In fact, the final polish on the script was almost certainly written by Zanuck.
A story of dispersal and loss, unhappy marriages, family conflicts and death in the blackness of the coa
l mines, Ford managed to craft a movie that glows with the aura of warm nostalgia as seen through the eyes of an awestruck child, without ever betraying the dark tone of the material.
In the end Huw reflects on memories which have been transformed into sacred images.
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.
Let’s look at a brief clip in which villagers sing, evoking a world of unstated emotion:
How Green Was My Valley was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five, and beating out such classics as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion and Sergeant York for Best Picture. Sometimes the Academy actually gets it right.
Produced by Fox, the studio wanted to shoot the movie on location in Wales, but war in Europe made this impossible. Instead, the studio built a replica of a Welsh mining town at the 3,000-acre Fox Ranch in Malibu Canyon.