How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director:  John Ford
Cast:  Walter PidgeonMaureen O'HaraAnna Lee, Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall
Plot:  At the turn of the century in a Welsh mining village, the Morgans raise coal-mining sons and hope their youngest will find a better life.

Genre:  Drama / Family
Awards:  Won 5 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction.  Nom. for 5 Oscars - Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Sound.
Runtime:  118min
Rating:  PG

"Oh Huw, my little one, I hope when you're grown their tongues will be slower to hurt."

I am uncertain how green my valley was, but it is definitely not as green (nor as bleak) as what transpires in this John Ford Best Picture winner that also won four other Oscars that year, including Best Director and Best Cinematography. 

It might have felt the right choice and resonated with the voters then, but looking from the lens of history, many critics have come to appreciate what ought to have been Oscar wins for director Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose groundbreaking and immensely influential Citizen Kane (1941) now towers over Ford's sentimental account of a Welsh family of coal miners.  And if I may add, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of the greatest of film noirs was also in competition.

How Green Was My Valley, now less talked about when discussing Ford's filmography, is one of his more overrated pictures, and a less commanding effort than the likes of Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Searchers (1956) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  It has its moments of humanistic beauty, of folks trying to make ends meet by toiling long hours at a local coal mining company while retaining their sense of family and culture. 

The community sings morale-boosting songs as they walk on the streets.  The atmosphere is lively, festive even.  But as issues of the day like wage cutting, unemployment, the occasional tragedy of a tunnel cave-in, and even scandal affect the folks, green becomes as black as the coal they mine.

The performances are engaging, in particular Donald Crisp who plays the father of the family in question, and Roddy McDowall whose character Huw performs the dual role of narrator and recollector. 

Huw recalls his childhood, and as he reflects on some of the major events of those yesteryears, he grows attached to his past... like nostalgia for the countryside.  Where is he now?  Is he still mining coal?  Through his memories, we try to picture a more successful, older Huw, hopefully less impoverished than when he was a kid. 

Ford's overly sentimental treatment does get us to think about these things, and while the picture somehow reaches our hearts, it does so too straightforwardly.

Verdict:  In a year with Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, this Best Picture winner is overrated, overly sentimental and one of John Ford’s less commanding works.

GRADE: B- (7/10 or 3 stars)

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