Film: How Green was My Valley
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player
There have been some really good years for movies. One such is 1941. When a film beats out Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for Best Picture, it had better be one hell of a picture. Well, How Green was My Valley did beat those films and a few others for Best Picture. So how does it stack up?
Sadly, not as well as it should. This is not so much a movie about the triumph of the human spirit as it is a film that trips you, kicks you over and over again, and then takes your wallet. This is a “nothing good happens in it” movie, or at least not too much does. Of course it doesn’t help a lot that we spend our time in a small Welsh mining village and never really leave it.
The film is the story of Huw Morgan (a very young Roddy McDowall) who grows up in a coal mining family. He is the youngest, and like many a young boy, looks up to his father and his brothers, all of whom work in the mines. He wishes for nothing more than to work in the mines himself someday, seeing the permanently soot-blackened skin of his father and siblings as the true mark of a man.
We also learn of his sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), who falls for the local preacher, Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon). Angharad is also pursued by the son of the mine’s owner. Gruffydd gives her up since he decides that he cannot provide the sort of life for her that she deserves, and thus we see the beginnings of a theme that will follow us to the very end.
We also discover the serious problems that plague the miners—namely that their wages are terrible and that they are unorganized. A strike hits the mines and separates the family at least temporarily as the older boys side with the idea of striking for better wages and conditions while the father (Donald Crisp) believes that the strike will only bring greater problems to the already relatively impoverished workers.
We go through a series of trials with young Huw. When his mother (Sara Allgood) falls through a hole in the ice during the winter, Huw dives in and rescues her, and because of this temporarily loses the use of his legs. It is Gruffydd who helps him through this particular trial and helps him regain the ability to walk, one of the few bright spots of the story.
Huw shows promise as a scholar and is sent off to school. Here, nothing improves for the young man at first—he is belittled by his schoolmaster and bullied by the other kids since Huw is new, small, and from a poor coalmining family. Huw is taught how to box and defend himself, a fact that prevents him from another playground beating, but earns him a more severe one at the hands of his sadistic instructor. Successful in school, Huw decides to work in the mines to be like his father and brothers rather than pursue another career.
Misery piles on top of misery when Angharad returns to the village and rumors spread that she is planning to divorce her husband because she is still infatuated with Gruffydd. Naturally, this ends just about as badly as virtually everything else in the film, placing the despair cherry on top of this gloom sundae.
More than anything, How Green was My Valley reminds me of The Grapes of Wrath. The main difference is that in this film, the people dig for coal instead of pick produce, and they all have strange Welsh names.
In all honesty, and admittedly unfairly, I expected this film to rock my world completely since it beat such notable films for Best Picture honors. It didn’t. I really didn’t like this film very much, in part because of these unreal expectations and in part because it seemed to revel in its own despairing story. The people in this film get kicked repeatedly, and even the one person who might make it out legitimately keeps himself in the misery corral. It’s entirely believable that young Huw would want to follow his father and brothers into the mine, but it’s not a choice I’m happy with.
What really tweaks me, though, is Huw’s mother. In her world, Huw has made the best of all possible choices, because all of that book learning is meaningless for her, and coal mining is the best her child can aspire to. She’s played sympathetically, but she is so backward and provincial in her thinking that I can’t help but be frustrated by her.
How Green was My Valley gives all of the important choices in his life to Huw, and sees him making the wrong ones over and over. Rarely have I wanted to reach into the screen and slap some sense into a character more.
Why to watch How Green was My Valley: It won Best Picture.
Why not to watch: It’s nowhere close to earning that award.