Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How Black were My Lungs

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.


  1. "Don't ask me about art. I make films to pay rent"

    Who said that :D ?

  2. Movies are full of people making the wrong life choices.

    I do agree with your assessment regarding it's value in the Oscars. "Citizen Kane" was certainly a greater cinematic achievement in many ways but also believe that it has enough value to warrant a "must see" status.

    I'm willing to bet, there are many mining communities in these United States as well as other countries today that mirror many of the events that happen "across the pond" in this film. Mining does tend to be a family vocation with generations that continue as a kind of family tradition regardless of the perilous nature.

    My father used to say "taught you all I know and you still don't know nothin'" which it took a while for me to figure out, was never a condemnation of the value of what he knew but a measure of what I did with the information.

    Your really burning through "The Book" and congrats of finding "Me And My Gal".

  3. I'm not sure I call this a must-see. Good, certainly, but there wasn't much here that I haven't seen in films like The Grapes of Wrath or even M. To my mind, the film is worth watching, but not essential.

    As for burning through the book, my goal is to beat Nicolas Krizan to the end. Of course, he's about 390 movies closer than I am, so my chances aren't that good.

  4. Well Steve, unless you go on about a three year movie boycott, you should at least beat me. I don't see light at the end of my tunnel until about 2016. And though I did like How Green Was My Valley a little more than you,in a Citizen Kane, Maltese Falcon, Sullivan's Travels year, the academy's choice that year does seem a bit ill-advised. I might even throw in Buck Privates! High Sierra! The Lady Eve!...you get my point.

  5. I do, sir. There's no way this was the best movie of its year.

  6. I agree that there were better movies made in 1941, but in hindsight, how many »Best Pictures« are really the best of their particular year?

    And by the way, I will do my very best to fulfill my role as your chosen rabbit, but I have a distinct feeling I will eventually be beaten ;-)

  7. You've got a point about whether or not the Academy chooses the right movie--a lot of that really comes down to personal opinion--but this is an example of the Academy really blowing it. It's not that there's a movie from the same year that's better, it's that there are several movies that are better.

    In 2005, Crash won, and it's not a terrible movie, but is it really better than Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich, A History of Violence, Brokeback Mountain, and Walk the Line? This is like that.

  8. There's an interesting book called "Alternate Oscars," in which author Danny Peary goes through the movies that should have one best picture and actor and actress etc. It came out in 91', I'd love to see an update, though I can't agree with all his selections either. I remember some of his choices are hindsight no-brainers, Kane, 2001, The Wizard of Oz!, It's a Wonderful Life & Raging Bull etc.

  9. I'm not a fan of this one either. Decent cinematography, cheesy dialogue and acting.

  10. Yeah, that about sums it up. It feels like a contest to see who can swing the biggest misery dick. Huw wins.

  11. I'll agree it's not Citizen Kane standards, but I really liked this film. The bonds of family, the politics of a small town community and hard life truths are all portrayed richly through these small vignettes as a man reminisces on his childhood.

    I think it's a great film and one that gets to me every time I watch it.

    Part of me wonders if you went in with expectations far too high, because it's not a film shooting for the moon, but what it does, it does very well.

  12. Entirely possible. Even a very good movie can be ruined by unrealistic expectations.

    I think it is quite similar to The Grapes of Wrath, but Wrath is far better.

  13. This is so weird. My opening is almost an exact copy of yours and honestly I only read your review afterwards. That is so bizarre. And yet maybe not so strange. As "best picture" in a year with such esteemed films you would expect much from "HGwmV", but it so fails to deliver. This is truly a depressing film. I like you headline. Coal dust indeed.

    1. Great minds think alike. Time hasn't been as kind to this film as it has been to others from the same year. I think had it not won Best Picture, it would be remembered better--it catches a lot of flak for being the film that beat Kane.