Written by: Phillip Dunne
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp, Anna Lee, Roddy McDowall
In the strangest way, awards success, at times, define a film’s legacy by those who follow it. A point where winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards could damage a film’s long-standing legacy because of what it beat out as opposed to being a great film that unfairly did not receive its flowers during its run. How Green Was My Valley falls into the first predicament, but it still has quite the bite as John Ford continues to stun me both in his filmmaking but also the progressive messaging instilled in the narratives.
Residing in a small coal town, Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) resides with his family of older brothers, a sister, and two loving parents. The men of the family earn their wage at the coal mine and bring home their earnings in order to contribute to the household. A decent living for back-breaking work until the coal company begins to take advantage of these workers.
Narrated by an older version of Huw, How Green Was My Valley has a nostalgic look back at the aforementioned character’s childhood along with what he loved about it and what ultimately tore it apart. It brings the feeling of looking back at the good ol’ days but in the process, the film highlights the injustices a capitalist industry like coal can do to a town wholly dependent on it to feed their family. At one point Huw’s father and several of his older brothers earned a decent wage but recent actions by the coal company have lowered compensation because of the increased demand for work. Simple supply and demand in an economic sense, but the human element always seemingly gets overlooked.
This film shows the human aspect of these decisions and it gets political very quickly. The way in which this film shifts into this leads to my continual surprise of John Ford and the stories he decides to take on. After experiencing and rewatching The Grapes of Wrath, both of these features carry a distinct anti-capitalist message to them and how the people at the top making all of the decisions based on the numbers obviously do not care about the well-being of their workers. How Green Was My Valley takes it a step further in introducing unionization and the generational divide it represents in the Morgan household. It brings pain but also highlights how the sons of the Morgan household will simply not be thankful for having a job and take whatever scraps they can get. A view their father refuses to take because of the values instilled in him.
In addition to the financial woes, this feature seeks to highlight, it also speaks on the desperation that can occur because of it. This appears in the way Huw’s sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) gets treated by the townsfolk, which even gets dicier when the supposed affair occurs with a member of the church. Religion plays an integral part because of the social standing it provides those in the town. With pretty much one church for everyone to attend, everyone knows the business of their neighbor if the information ever gets initially divulged. They certainly do not follow the sayings against gossiping but since when has that stopped anyone? Shaming, lying, and all sorts of negative interactions begin to sully what Huw once thought was a great place to live, as indicated by the title of the feature.
Mixing together the sentimentality of looking at the past with the honesty of what went wrong allows this feature to be a time capsule establishing the way these individuals felt during their time. Childhood nostalgia can cloud plenty and even take a look back on horrible things that seem a bit softer because of how it mixes with all of the fun aspects of being a child. The balance struck by this feature in handling both makes this a complete feature as well as an enjoyable one.
How Green Was My Valley has mostly been forgotten as a feature through the annals of history outside of hardcore cinephiles who also follow the Academy Awards with its biggest claim to fame coming from it beating Citizen Kane. Heralded as the greatest film ever made, an argument I will not refute, being the film to beat it to Best Picture should not be the envy of anyone. However, it holds up incredibly well with the commentary it wishes to say about unionization, religion, capitalism, and tribalism. Yet another John Ford feature that would be deemed radical and woke if released today but expresses long-standing feelings of the working class.