Wednesday, July 6, 2022

How Green was My Valley? (John Ford, 1941)


Like Citizen Kane, which it famously beat as the best picture Oscar winner of 1941, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley? is heavy with remembrance and regret, for a time of vanished coherence and beauty. Ford’s film is far more conventional than Welles’s, and looms far less large in the collective cinematic memory, but much about it is beautiful and moving, even if there’s little that doesn’t seem simplified and/or idealized (it’s in black and white, but still, one feels that the valley was never that green, that life was never in such perfect equilibrium). The film constitutes the childhood memories of Hugh (played as a boy, very sweetly, by Roddy McDowall), the youngest of six brother and a sister (Maureen O’Hara) growing up in a Welsh mining village. At first, all seems idyllic (the film rings with choral renditions of many Welsh-language classics), but many of the opening precepts are shown to be false or fragile: the economic relationship between the mine and the workers deteriorates more with each passing year, causing an inevitable outward migration and erosion of community; the centrality of religion is exposed as a ritualistic sham (Walter Pidgeon plays the local minister, ultimately all but driven out by cowardly hypocrisy); the inherent danger of the work floods the valley with loss, and slowly poisons those lush vistas. Saddest of all is the decision of academically gifted Hugh to follow his family into the mine rather than continue with his studies, speaking sad volumes about the imposed smallness of his world, his inability to grasp broader possibilities. The film may be at its weakest when Ford indulges his liking for boozy camaraderie, but impresses with the confidence of its storytelling, not least with how much its ending leaves unresolved, both for the individuals and for the world they inhabit.

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