How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)

!! CAUTION !!

There’s not much trace of actual Wales in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, a very Hollywood and very tortuous adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s sprawling and intricate book; its nature as a gritty and fairly uncompromising account of life among the lowest class of Welsh coal miners doesn’t lend itself to a Hays-era Hollywood film, but even at that it’s hard to imagine a more inappropriate treatment than that given by Ford and 20th Century Fox, a full-scale dilution that repositions what amounts to an epic-scale story as a sequence of flighty episodes that only briefly touch upon the dark, class-conscious themes of the original work — and then in a banal, superficial manner. In its ruthless nostalgia and blind eye toward reality, it’s closely similar to Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade; its bizarre conservatism and sugary concoction of a kinder-gentler disenfranchisement and misery is best exemplified by the strange longing it exhibits for what seems a horrendous squalor to live in.

To start with, there’s the title; in Llewellyn’s version, the valley is green because his young protagonist has just lost his virginity — here, it’s just green because it symbolizes an escape from modernism, especially from war. But to his credit, Ford translates much of the death and misery of the novel, he just skirts quickly onward once it’s illustrated. It’s equally important to consider the thankless task in front of the director here, as he inherits a novel with more than twenty major characters and attempts to make us care about them all in a two-hour film. This, of course, is not a success, nor is the attempted translation of any class-warfare theme; Ford depicts a noble, romantic kind of suffering instead of the harsh and abysmal reality of the typical mining community — itself already idealized by Llewellyn, who despite his claims to the contrary never spent much time in Wales or around this sort of life. In the form of Walter Pidgeon’s rather silly preacher Gruffydd, there’s also the injection of a hollow spirituality. The romanticism attached here to the life of the very poor makes for a truly mindbending juxtaposition with Ford’s major film of the prior year, The Grapes of Wrath.

Much as the cast is utterly free of any actual Welsh actor save Rhys Williams and features a charmingly yet gratingly disorganized myriad of accents, Malibu Canyon somewhat improbably stands in here for Wales, which adds to the air of unreality around the production. World War II, the event from which How Green seems so determined to distract itself, prevented any elaborate location shoot, and Ford — inheriting the project from William Wyler at the last minute — does the best he can to make the place look good, which honestly it does in certain moments. But that’s mostly because Ford’s general visual sense is flawless anyway, and his careful choice of shots and enlivening of the scenes, at night particularly, are the only major reasons to see this movie. The cast offers little to craft anything distinctive out of the overflowing pile of characters, most of which are wholly indistinct; Sara Allgood’s contribution as tough-minded Mrs. Morgan is memorable, and Roddy McDowall is immensely lovable as hero Huw, fully selling the young boy’s anguish at the finale, but the complete aimlessness does harm to the other performers and characters, Pidgeon and Donald Crisp more than anyone, emphasizing just how poor this adaptation was at streamlining in the right places.

The effect is mostly boredom — it’s a difficult film to sit through — with awkward episodes variously overcome by a mixture of ridiculous situations, ugly sentimentality, and mawkishly treated tragedy. Narration by Irving Pichel, awkwardly reciting the title, turns the dull into the painful. It’s popular to marvel at How Green Was My Valley taking the Best Picture award in the year of Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, saddling it with permanent scorn while also giving ammunition for Kane haters; it’s obvious, though, that Kane lost the award only because of politics, and this film’s modern obscurity speaks to its utter dearth of serious relevance.

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