Based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley has the dubious distinction of being the movie that beat Citizen Kane for the 1941 Academy Award. John Ford, who won for the third time as best director (with yet another such prize up ahead), didn’t think much of the film, and with good reason. This is not an interesting film, nor a particularly good one. It is to fellow nominee Howard Hawks, not Orson Welles, however, that Ford apologized in person for his Oscar victory. Hawks received his one and only Oscar nomination for Sergeant York, although this is one of his weakest films as well. What does all this say about the motion picture academy?

Give How Green Was My Valley this: it is a better film than either of the best picture winners to follow, Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942) and Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, also 1942, but kept from opening in Hollywood until 1943). A lot of lousy films have won Oscars, including some of the lousiest, most unwatchable ones ever made: Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931), Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933), On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954), Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Anderson, 1956), Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959), West Side Story (Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961), A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966), The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975), Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976), Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980), Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985), Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990), Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003). Such hollow, boring spectacles, tearjerkers and “entertainments” constitute an ignominious list.

Let’s say, then, that John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is one of the better films to win the best picture Oscar. But that doesn’t keep it from being mediocre or from possessing a hollowness all its own.

The protagonist is Huw, who lends voiceover narration as he prepares to leave the Welsh valley where he grew up. Now a middle-aged man, he recalls his youth, when he was the youngest child of Gwilym and Beth Morgan. Gwilym Morgan and his sons, including, eventually, Huw, are coal miners. A depression in the coal market leads to depressed wages for the workers; the Morgan sons and other younger-generation miners strike, but the settlement of the strike only forestalls economic decisions by owners, including downsizing, that devastates the working community. The Morgan family disintegrates as the grown sons move on, to find work elsewhere. Meanwhile, industrialization darkens and dirties the once pristine valley.

There is no reason why such material should not have resulted in a substantial and valuable film. The initial unionizing of a group of workers, especially in the absence of “outside agitation,” might have drawn a dramatic line of causality between the lot of workers and efforts at collective bargaining. Unfortunately, this film, by restricting its perspective to family dynamics in the Morgan household, shortcircuits such an opportunity. What we are given are confrontations across a generation gap as Gwilym retains faith in ownership and opposes his sons and the strike. The only glint of analysis that this situation provides derives from the irony that Gwilym’s traditional patriarchic authority in the Morgan household unconsciously mimics the exploitive antics of the mine ownership via-à-vis workers. The irony doubles when, as one of the higher paid miners, Gwilym’s purse is axed as a cost-cutting measure. Yet even these worthwhile insights grow faint and elusive given the film’s sentimental emphasis on the loving Morgan family and the deeply religious community to which it belongs.

Indeed, it is on the latter point that the film rings most hollow. A Godly vision that is visited upon Beth Morgan after the mine collapses and her husband is killed is preposterously rendered by Ford, whose atheism deprives him of any sensitive grasp of this gripping event. The American filmmaker famous for the dictum that one shouldn’t move the camera without some artistic purpose in mind jolts us with a sensational though meaningless camera movement the sole purpose of which is to distract us, and himself, from his complete lack of conviction here. I sympathize. Ford is entitled to his dismissive views about God and religion off the set, but his lack of faith makes him the wrong person to direct Philip Dunne’s script.

On another score, however, Ford has been wrongly criticized. Film critic Pauline Kael led the attack by faulting the sheer beauty of the set of the mining community, which struck her as being too well scrubbed to indicate reality. Keyed to the psychology of Huw’s memory, what we see here isn’t how the valley looked near the close of the nineteenth century but how Huw, now, remembers it, colored by his affectionate feelings for family and the distant past. Kael and others, then, fail to consider psychological realism; and, in any case, it borders on churlishness to fault this aspect when Huw himself notes the valley’s deterioration. Indeed, other elements of the film, such as the choral music perfectly sung by the miners as they return from work, are also keyed to Huw’s glowing memory. The literal-minded will never understand a poet like Ford.

Still, the film gives one plenty to carp about. There is insufficient historical context provided to make credible the stifled romance between the minister, Mr. Gruffydd, and the Morgan daughter. (These roles, incidentally, are beautifully enacted by Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara.) Too many of the alleged Welshmen too closely resemble Ford’s Irishmen. The music drips with sentimental affect when Mr. Gruffydd takes a sickly Huw on an outing to the hills to inspire him to recovery and to instill in him good Christian values. The blunting of the film’s political dimension, apparently, derived in part from studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s insistence on successive script revisions. Not surprisingly, Zanuck identified with the owners of the mine!

The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is by Arthur Miller. But how on earth did it better Gregg Toland’s in Citizen Kane in the eyes of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?


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