How Green Was My Valley (1941)
No film set in Wales has been showered with as many awards or accolades (or reputedly raised such critical hackles within Wales) as the mining drama How Green Was My Valley, from Richard Llewellyn's 1937 novel.
The feature won five Oscars - for Best Film, Best Director (John Ford), Photography (Arthur Miller), Art Direction, and supporting actor (Donald Crisp, playing the patriarch of the central Morgan family).
Yet in Wales it frequently evokes guarded even disdainful reactions from scholars. They harp on the film's location (shot on the Twentieth Century Fox back lot and ranch), the undue sentiment, perceived errors of detail including the outlandish size of the miners' cottage interiors, or the veracity of the scene in which the Morgan boys and their father line up outside the family home to drop weekly earnings into the outstretched pinafore of the mam Beth Morgan.
Detractors (with some justification) produce the chestnut that scarcely any of the actors were Welsh (only Rhys Williams, as headstrong pugilist Dai Bando, had a significant role). The critics believe Ford (born Sean O'Feeney and of Irish descent) was more intent on employing Irish actors (Sara Allgood as Beth Morgan, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald and his brother Arthur Shields). In fact it's now believed that William Wyler, first choice to make the film, was responsible for main casting.
Comments about the worth of How Green hinging entirely around its reality and literal veracity are misguided. For the film is seen more rewardingly as quintessential John Ford, fitting snugly into a lyrical canon celebrating a mythology, alongside his Frontier Westerns with their wealth of communal warmth and traditional values.
How Green tells how the ravages of mining and capitalist imperatives destroy the pastoral idyll of the valleys, and the Morgan family is split asunder by the tyranny of the pit and its owners. The schism is caused by the clash of Gwilym Morgan's sense of honour and deference to his employers and his sons' sense of fair play faced with management exploitation.
The story, set largely in the pre-World War One period and the time of the Tonypandy Riots, is told in flashback by a now-elderly Huw Morgan (played as a boy throughout the film by English-born Roddy McDowall).
Ford gives anyone sufficient clues to his intentions in the opening narration, stressing that it's a story told through the eyes of a boy and (it's implied) in the roseate glow of memory.
The book's centre is the Morgan family. Ford subtly shifts the film's balance to give as much priority to the fated romance of Huw's sister Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) and the minister Gruffydd (played by Canadian Walter Pidgeon), no doubt partly in deference to these two Hollywood stars, and the studio's demands.
This doesn't detract too much from the movie's emotional power. Think of the scene when Gruffydd, now a forlorn, stricken figure, looms up among the chapel's gravestones to peer on as the love of his life marries the unloved coal owner's son. The visual orchestration here, after the film has established Gruffydd as a man of such gravitas, a born peacemaker, is flawless.
The camaraderie between Gruffydd and Huw is developed meticulously as the boy recovers after the heroic rescue of his mother from drowning. Yet for all How Green's finer qualities - and the performances of Crisp and all the female Morgans at least are first rate - the film lacks the political relevance it might have had, if studio head Daryl Zanuck had not approved of using McDowall throughout and stymied the original choice of Tyrone Power as the adult Huw in the second half.
This would have allowed the narrative to embrace latter incidents of the book and its growing darkness and ambivalence as Huw, in thrall to his father's values (however compromised) joins scab labour fighting to keep the pit open against a siege by his former friends.
Ford was less interested in making a political film than in presenting a valued community in the throes of change. If the film succeeds, it's because Ford's humanity and always alluring craftsmanship disarms.