How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Winning legendary director John Ford the Oscar for Best Director, How Green Was My Valley is far from the generical Western Ford would become famed for. Set in a small Welsh village during the reign of Queen Victoria, our narrator guides us retrospectively through his childhood in the small coal-mining town. Within minutes the narrator’s mellow voice deftly gives way to action and dialogue, the whole process rather like immersing an egg in boiling water. We are dropped slowly and gently into the action until we are totally enveloped by the world.
The main thrust is an examination of family. We witness the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s through the eyes of young Hew (pronounced Hugh), played with stunning maturity by the young Master Roddy McDowell. During the exposition phase we tend to see the villiage and the people in it from low-angle shots, giving us an impression of size and magnitude in much the same way as Hew sees his world. There are soon some troubles at the local coal-mine, where most of the townspeople are employed, and the film then chronicles the ways in which the family fights against it’s disintegration. Oh, and mark one point on the New Zealand reference list.
So we’ve got to ask ourselves why this fine film is overshadowed by Citizen Kane, which tops the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 films of the decade. The answer seems straightforward to me. We can look back at Citizen Kane and see a statement on the 20th Century, on modernity and capitalism and all of the themes which dominated the last hundred years. Citizen Kane encapsulates the state of the century. But How Green Was My Valley was awarded Best Picture over Citizen Kane because it captures more of a single moment in history. It is a confined snapshot of the fears and values of 1941. The idea that the family and the things we hold dear would fall apart with the onset of war, or that America was losing it’s connection to it’s roots, were surely predominate fears in the early 1940s. And it is films like How Green which make this undertaking such an interesting project – because they give us a window into how people of the past thought about themselves.
Maybe Citizen Kane is better and maybe it says more to us today, but How Green Was My Valley is still a masterpiece of cinema and cinematography. Well worth a watch.