10 June 2009
Best Pictures: How Green Was My Valley, 1941
It's the film that beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1941, and today that seems to be it's only claim to fame, but unfairly. It's a solid picture, well-directed by John Ford. On the surface it seems to be rather simple, but underneath brews a myriad of interesting topics that provide an eeriness that underscores some of the beautiful images such as the one pictured above.
The narrative, simply put, concerns a family living in a valley in Wales, one that is dominated by a coal mine through which all men must pass. The family experiences its ups and downs, all seen through the eyes of young Huw Morgan(Roddy McDowall). He lives in a house with his parents and his many brothers, and one sister (Maureen O'Hara) who is pressured into an unsatisfying marriage. It's one of those slice of life stories that Oscar seems to favor so often, covering great lengths of time and showing you the life of people long ago and far away. However, because of plot points I won't divulge, it's not merely a memoir, but more like a eulogy.
But the film also deals with themes like unionization, corporal punishment, religious discipline, and environmental decline. These revolve around an emotionally satisfying and dynamic pastoral drama, and help to keep it from becoming pure sentiment. Uniting it all is a restlessness about the status quo and man's place in society. If the film has a singular focus it is the tendency of politics to ruin a community (an idea which resonates particularly well with me).
So while it may not have the technical innovation and proficiency of Kane, it's probably got just as much heart and insight. In terms of Ford's body of work, it's not as memorable or iconic as, say, The Searchers, but it's consistent. Part of that is due to the lack of a standout performance, despite Walter Pidgeon's strong turn as the humanistic minister. Part of what makes The Searchers so fascinating is because its part of that mythos of The Duke. While Valley can't claim that kind of Hollywood glamour, it still excels on its own terms.