Welsh film history: 1940-49

Photograph of a camera from the 1940s

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Wales and its people appeared more frequently in British cinema in the 1940s, but the filmmakers were still almost invariably English or Americans whose work told us as much about their preconceptions (or prejudices) than about life as experienced by most of the Welsh population.

The most enduring impressions of Wales (for good or ill) emerged in John Ford's 20th Century Fox film How Green Was My Valley (1941), from Richard Llewellyn's novel. The film, lyrical and compassionate, was a lament for a lost Wales (or a Wales that never existed) of warm, loving communities and green valleys - before industrialisation and pollution blighted the landscape and deteriorating employer-employee relationships soured the atmosphere.

Ford's version contains majestic scenes and performances and picked up five Oscars but attracted criticism, especially in Wales, for it's lack of reality - yet it's best approached as part of Ford's vision and (frequently myth-making) canon of work. The film certainly diluted the novel's political dimension. The decision to cast Roddy McDowall to represent a young Huw Morgan throughout the film rather than Tyrone Power, the original choice as an adult Huw, robs How Green of the book's intense final phase.

Other 1940s fiction films set in Wales still capture filmgoers' imaginations. The finest, though again representing a flight from reality, was at least made by a Welshman, Emlyn Williams.

The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), Williams' sole film as director and made for Alexander Korda's London films, offered a striking, slightly eerie evocation of a Welsh village drowned in the 1890s to provide reservoir and water for Liverpool, though Williams fought shy of the political implications.

His film forced us to see the flooding as the responsibility of an evil visitor, Rob Davies (played by Williams himself), bent on revenge on the community for his ostracism in disgrace years before. We see the threat to the village through the eyes of a humble chapel caretaker, played with great dignity by Edith Evans, Williams deserved special recognition for persuading Korda to accept an amount of Welsh language (unsubtitled) unprecedented in a commercial film until S4C's arrival in the 1980s.

Williams, through this film, conveyed some of his ambivalent feelings for Wales years after leaving it, and the same could be said of his semi-autobiographical play The Corn is Green. It was first filmed in 1945, with Bette Davis as Miss Moffat - a character inspired by his own great education mentor Miss Cooke. This US feature was remade in 1979 with Katharine Hepburn and Welshman Ian Saynor impressive as the male lead - but Williams had no part in the scripting for either film.

Welsh pits figured prominently in other 1940s screen dramas, though The Proud Valley (1940) was filmed mainly in the studio and in collieries in Staffordshire where private owners gave permission denied in Wales. The film was a vehicle for the great American singer-actor Paul Robeson who made a string of films in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and regarded Proud Valley, directed by Pen Tennyson, great grandson of the poet, as his finest screen work.

The film is fundamentally soft-centred and seriously compromised by repeated cutaway shots to Robeson in close up and producer Michael Balcon's need to set an example for the Government by supporting their idea of a wartime Popular Front by showing workers and bosses fighting together to reopen a closed pit.

Tennyson, despite his old Etonian and Oxford University background, was a staunch trade unionist but his attempt to have the film called One in Five - the number of miners injured in the pit - fell foul of Balcon. The film conveys much of the nitty-gritty of Welsh life and plight of families living on tick - and was the first in Britain to tackle, however tenuously, the tricky subject of racism.

Jill Craigie, the only female director then making British feature movies, directed the Welsh mining drama Blue Scar (1949) released in the year she married politician Michael Foot. It's notable for the candid views expressed post-Nationalisation of the pits and the emotion its characters invest in the Government's take-over.

Location work is impressive and there are convincing contributions from Welsh actors Prysor Williams, as a miner and stoic family head, and Kenneth Griffith, as a garrulous armchair provocateur campaigning for the five-day pits week.

Welsh actor Clifford Evans starred as the fated political left-wing firebrand in Love on the Dole (1941), the most outspoken radical film on the working-class experience seen in Britain on major cinema circuits at that time. Based on Walter Greenwood's novel, it was released only after serious scripting interference by the censors.

In these years there were enjoyable performances, especially at Michael Balcon's Ealing studios, from Mervyn Johns (father of actress Glynis). He played pivotal roles in the portmanteau films Halfway House (1944), set in Wales but shot in the west country, and the riveting Cavalcanti ventriloquist episode of the classic thriller Dead of Night (1945), an episode more terrifying than any in Richard Attenborough's feature Magic (1978). Johns was memorable, too in a cameo as a catalyst for 'Careless talk costs lives' caution - the German spy in Thorold Dickinson's fine Next of Kin (1942).

Donald Houston enjoyed a huge personal box office success with his exotic debut cinema movie The Blue Lagoon (1949) for Universal, but at Ealing. Houston, Meredith Edwards and Hugh Griffith were an impressive leading male trio in the likeable 1949 comedy A Run for Your Money, directed by Charles Frend from a story by Clifford Evans. The film has been persistently underrated after emerging at the fag end of a year which saw the release of Ealing's comedies Whisky Galore, Passport to Pimlico and Robert Hamer's unforgettable Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Dylan Thomas made enduring scripting contributions to a few distinguished documentaries: Our Country (1944) set partly in Wales, Wales: Green Mountain, Black Mountain (1942) and These Are The Men (1943), a courageous riposte to the Nazis and to German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935).

The Welsh film destined to arrest the attention of academics and historians in later years was Silent Village (1943) a film which ingeniously transposed the 1942 slaughter of an entire male population in the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice by the Nazis to the west Wales village of Cwmgiedd.

This spare but poignant film, still resonating with mining communities throughout Europe, was directed by Humphrey Jennings and benefits from wonderful editing by Stewart McAllister. It carries a powerful charge - and not merely through its final scene of the miners lined up against an old stone bridge, defiantly singing in the face of the firing squad.

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Mark Kermode

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