Film Score: Alfred Newman Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood
The great Irving Pichel opens the film, in voiceover, as the older character Huw Morgan. The character is leaving his home for the final time, and remembers back to his childhood in a mining village in Wales, where his character is played by a young Roddy McDowell. He’s the youngest of six sons and a daughter, played by Maureen O’Hara. The family is ruled by father Donald Crisp, heavy handed with his moral guidance, which runs through his sons down to Huw. O’Hara helps her mother cook and clean, and the sons all contribute their money earned in the mine to mother Sara Allgood and then receive a small allowance in return. As always in this kind of film, the church looms large and young Huw is also guided by Walter Pidgeon as the local priest. As such stories usually go, the family is threatened by any number of perils, beginning when the mine shortens hours and cuts back on workers. The eldest son, Patric Knowles, is the first to marry, but the other boys soon move out when they want to unionize and go on strike, against their father’s wishes. Then the inherent dangers of the mine go on to claim a number of men in the village, O’Hara falls desperately in love with Pidgeon, who has no intention of marrying anyone, and before long the whole family is miserable, a reflection of the general misery of the entire valley, and so it goes. Through it all, the whole thing is just so overly sentimentalized and fantasized that it’s unwatchable much of the time.
But I get it. The U.S. was on the cusp of World War II. It had just been through, and was still suffering from, The Great Depression. So I’m sure it seemed as if everything Americans held dear had evaporated out from under them, and naturally a story like this would have been appealing, perhaps even provided a measure of comfort. But it can hardly be said to be entertaining. Still, even acknowledging it’s popularity with the public, the fact that a film like this could win the Oscar for best picture over Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is incomprehensible. John Ford won an Oscar for best director as well, even though he had taken over the project from William Wyler in the early stages of production, and while some critics compare the film to best of his westerns, there’s something about the overt emotional manipulation in this particular film that is rather unsavory. He would do the same thing a decade and a half later in The Long Gray Line, and with equally dismal results. There’s no real star in the picture, as it’s something of an ensemble piece, though Crisp and Allgood are central to the story, even more so than McDowell, and the relationship between Pidgeon and O’Hara is more exasperating than interesting. While How Green Was My Valley is purportedly a sentimental look at a simpler time, it feels much more like an unrelenting view of grim reality with no redeeming features to make the experience worth the journey. It might still have appeal to some people today, but I’m not one of them.