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How Green Was My Valley (1941)


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Revisiting this to write my Top 100 blurb was an unexpectedly rich event. When I nominated it, it was because it answered the need for more Golden Age films to be considered for the list, and it was a film that I really liked without reservation. On first viewing a couple years ago I thought the film was nothing more than a perfectly crafted series of vignettes, but that "nothing more" really means it was one of those wonderfully efficient, beautifully shot and acted Hollywood pictures that had no real, arguable flaws that I could detect. You could say that that first viewing was a rich and emotional experience, but one that stayed near the surface.

Re-watching it this past week, however, yielded an entirely different, deeply emotional response from me, so much that I can safely say that HGWMV has entered the small canon of films about family that I will carry in my heart for the rest of my life. I have absolutely no problem with the fact that this was the film that "stole" Oscars from Citizen Kane (except maybe Cinematography; Toland really did deserve that). And while the popular line today is that the Academy awarded the "safest" choice, as they always do (Matt Zoller Seitz sadly being the latest to bemoan Valley's victory), that thinking fails to remember that in such an era as the Golden Age, the safest choice more likely than not was still a brilliant movie.

My connection with HGWMV is partly based in the fact that of my mixed ancestry, the only somewhat pure Old World blood I can lay claim to within three generations is Welsh. My maternal grandfather was born and raised in Wales, not very long after the events of Valley end (indeed, likely around the time of Huw's adult narration). The rest of my family being a tangled Anglo-Saxon web, I've turned in recent years to celebrating what bits of Welsh culture come along as way of identifying with that side of my family. And while HGWMV is a Hollywood film about Wales, not a Welsh film, there is an appreciation for the culture and setting that seems stronger to me than other culture-specific adaptations of the same era (particularly in the use of accents; I was expecting more Americanized voices).

Anyway. That's one reason why I've liked this film without reservation. And now, on second viewing, I'm quietly awed by it. Thunderstruck, even. Again, part of it is personal. Family conflicts that were only beginning to spiral downwards at the time of my last viewing have since blown into all-out trench warfare. I can't watch the scenes of Huw watching his father at odds with his sons without seeing my own family in it. There were many points where I was moved suddenly to tears. A film that I previously considered emotionally resonant, but not terribly penetrating, became a roller coaster.

And what I once saw as just a well-crafted string of different stories, without much unifying theme, suddenly revealed itself as something I did not realize from the first go-around: How Green Was My Valley is at it's heart, a very dark film. It's kind of a tragedy. It's strange to write that with so many memories of scenes featuring warm family dinners and Huw's personal victories, and the togetherness of the village, and even the way the film concludes with a montage of the story's happier moments sort of gives a false ease to a portrait that is really anything but that. But it's darkness isn't something forced on it by the makers; it's a knowing darkness. This is a film that makes no bones about the capacity of humans to good and evil in equal measure. This is a film about the death of innocence, both for Huw and for his village. It's so easy to remember the happy moments and forget the very plaintiveness of the title itself: How Green Was My Valley. It's not really a darkness that warns, but one that mourns, and to that end it reaches an almost religious intensity in certain images.

This is one of the great, honest films about community. The scenes of the villagers singing their way to work, sharing a common burden of labour, and then returning in the evening to gather by one particular home to lift the spirits of its inhabitants -- well, these are some of the richest cinematic expressions of togetherness ever filmed. And the way that Ford flips this almost impossibly idyllic setting on its head and reveals its hypocrisies and sins is what gives the film such a wise, mournful darkness, the sort that is so because of the light defining its edges. This is a film that grapples with the struggle between the flesh and the cross on both a municipal and a personal level. The narrative eases away from the early sunny days and tilts towards a downright apocalyptic interpretation.

I could go on and on about this, but I'll conclude for now with this: what makes HGWMV resonate so deeply for me now is viewing it as a truly human film, one that has a great awareness of the worst things we do to each other and a great appreciation for the acts of mercy and love -- indeed, for the entire force of love and justice that is the central family in action -- that shine out against the darkness. One could view this as just a tale of survival and endurance in hard times, but it's more than that. The love at the heart of the Morgan family is not just a shield, but a sword. It carves out a life for its family that sustains and overflows, and as Huw learns in the film's final moments, passes down to him too. That final montage becomes an act of faith, and an act of resistance against the despair and sorrow that has stalked the Morgans for so long. How green was his valley. But, if it was green before, it could be green again.

Maybe it isn't a tragedy after all.

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  • 5 months later...

That's an excellent Top 100 write-up, N.W. Despite the elegaic title and the horrifying events that occur, strangely as a whole the film doesn't ultimately feel like a tragedy to me. Huw's innocence, the minister's virtue, the goodness and love of mother and father, the Morgan family bond through all sorts of adversity - these things just seem to burn more fervently than the tragedy, baseness, and hypocrisy.

What an utterly good and beautiful film.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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  • 1 year later...

Peter Labuza just saw HGWMV for the first time and posted some interesting thoughts at Letterboxd:

On the surface, Ford is your granddaddy's favorite director: heavy, a bit slow, perhaps a little too moralizing, and (oh dear no!) sentimental. But then there's the actual Ford, the one I came to when I saw Mogambo last year: loaded with emotion in every frame, packing in expressive compositions throughout, and drenched with the hopes and pains of the past—a damn right good 'ol sentimentalist. And maybe you find his broad humor outdated, but that's your problem. Not his.

There are never true villains in Ford movies, and I couldn't help but think during How Green Was My Valley of a man who once said, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they are doing," which might be the way to describe the antagonistic characters in this complex tapestry of a community.* Like many of Ford's best films, he centers his story around families, and layers them with complex negotiations between the generations of the past and present. He is perhaps cinema's greatest political pragmatist—it even comes out in the subplot where young Huw learns to fight. Not everything can be solved the good Christian way, especially when the good Christian way is lead by the men and women at Mass who only go out of fear, as Mr. Gruffydd bellows at his sermon.

*It might help to have grown up in a Catholic Midwest background, but you gotta take the Christianity as it is—Mr. Gruffydd tells us that prayer is simply deep thought anyways. If you accept it in Bresson and Bergman, why not Ford?
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  • 1 year later...

Today only, you can order the Ford at Fox DVD set for $49.99 if you use the coupon code "GRAPES."

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I bought that set in 2008 with the stimulus money I received from the Bush administration. (It fell down during an earthquake the following year, scuffing Judge Priest.) But this deal is so good I might just buy it and give it away as a present!

Edited by Nathaniel

"A great film is one that to some degree frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing. The dynamic must be two-way. The great film not only comes at the viewer, it draws the viewer toward it." -Paul Schrader

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Nah, the true cinephiles are holding out for a Blu-ray set.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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