“Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still. Real in memory as they were in the flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then!”
Richard Llewellyn’s novel “How Green Was My Valley” was a popular book immediately upon its publication in 1939. Film rights were acquired by Twentieth Century-Fox and production chief Darryl Zanuck foresaw the film as a four-hour epic to rival Gone with the Wind. Filming would be done in colour on location in Wales where the book’s story takes place. William Wyler was lined up to direct and Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, and Tyrone Power were among those first considered for the cast.
Events conspired against Zanuck’s vision, however. The Phoney War that characterized the opening months of World War II (as far as Britain was concerned) ended with the continuous bombing of British targets by Germany in 1940, and it was obvious that shooting in Wales was no longer an option. The Fox braintrust in New York was also nervous about the union angle in the story and questions were asked about the projected costs, particularly with the notoriously meticulous Wyler being involved. With these delays, William Wyler withdrew from the production in order to film The Little Foxes for Sam Goldwyn. Fortuitously, John Ford, who had been working at Fox for some time, was then free to become involved and he expressed his interest in the story. With Wales out of the picture, Zanuck turned to the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu as an alternative shooting location. In order for them to be a viable substitute, photography would be in black and white in order to hide the fact that Malibu didn’t have the greens that Zanuck had originally envisaged. Shooting required only two months during the summer of 1941 and the completed film opened in New York on October 28 to enormous critical and popular acclaim. This carried the film to Oscar success the following spring when it won five Academy Awards including Best Picture (beating out Citizen Kane), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp), Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.
Fox has now released How Green Was My Valley as part of the first wave of its new Studio Classics DVD line.
As 50-year-old Huw Morgan prepares to leave his home, he reminisces about his youth and his family in the beloved valley where he grew up. Huw’s family consists of his father Gwilym, mother Beth, sister Angharad, and his five older brothers. Huw’s oldest brother Ivor is soon married to his fiancée Bronwyn and moves out into a nearby home of his own. Meanwhile, Angharad has caught the eye of the new young preacher, Mr. Gruffydd.
All the men of the town are employed by the local colliery and times are good. Then the market for coal weakens and the wages of the workers are all reduced. The men go on strike in response. Huw’s father is against the strike but his brothers and most of the other men in the town are strong supporters. The result is a split in the family that leads to Huw’s four remaining older brothers moving out. The lengthy strike leads to bitterness and the harassment of Huw’s father. Huw and his mother, Beth, travel one cold winter night to a strike meeting where Beth berates the strikers for their treatment of her husband. While going back home from the meeting, Huw and Beth fall into a frozen creek and both are only barely saved by the returning strikers. Huw is confined to bed with concern that he may never walk again.
Meanwhile, the strike is finally settled, but wages remain depressed and the most-highly paid workers are laid off to save money. The Morgan family gradually breaks up as the various brothers go abroad to seek work and Angharad gets married. Eventually the family is reduced to Huw and his mother and father. Huw too goes down the mine to work. Then one day, the fateful sirens sound indicating a disaster at the mine.
The passage of time and the reputation of Citizen Kane as perhaps the finest film ever made have conspired to suggest that How Green Was My Valley is somehow an unworthy film, undeserving of its awards in comparison to the technical brilliance of Orson Welles’s masterpiece. Things were not quite so clear in 1941. Of course, Hollywood has never been known for getting things right at awards time, but this was not a matter of one film unjustly winning over another. Citizen Kane was not uniformly viewed as a monumental achievement originally, and it is only with time and reassessment that its true place in film history has been recognized. It is true that Orson Welles was viewed with disdain by some in Hollywood at the time, and his first film was considered as a giant ego trip more than anything else, never mind the issues about its thinly veiled portrait of press baron Randolph Hearst. Doubtless this all played an important role in its not winning the Best Picture Academy Award. Yet Orson Welles would have been the first to extol the merits of a John Ford film, for it was the old masters such as Ford that Welles looked up to and credited for any directorial flair he himself possessed.
How Green Was My Valley is sometimes cited as Ford’s own favourite film, although he has been known to give that honour to several different titles including The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Quiet Man. Certainly that love for the film and its story is what comes through so strongly in all aspects — the images of the town and the valley, the details both physical and emotional of family life, the loving relationships between all the family members, and the unifying use of music. Ford’s greatest success with the film is to somehow create a feeling of warmth that manages to persist and even grow despite strikes, poverty, mining accidents, and family break-ups. The emotional impact of the film is powerful and lasting, bringing a tear to the driest eye, no matter how many times you watch.
The casting seems somehow perfect. Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood were always penciled in to play Gwilym and Beth, but the rest was serendipity. The key role of Huw went to Roddy McDowall early on only because William Wyler insisted on seeing his screen test even though the casting director didn’t recommend him. McDowall proved to have an instinct for the part that must be seen to be believed. Walter Pidgeon was borrowed from MGM to play Mr. Gruffyd after Fox decided against Alexander Knox. Anna Lee got the part of Bronwyn after Ford took over the picture, even though she had previously been rejected. A young Maureen O’Hara (she was 20 when filming began) appeared as Angharad, in the first of five films she would do for Ford. (Greer Garson had been an early possibility for the role.) Many of Ford’s favourites also had small parts including Barry Fitzgerald, Rhys Williams, Una O’Connor, and Arthur Shields. Also significant was the role played by actor-director Irving Pichel; in a beautifully modulated voice, he provides the narration that knits the film together so wonderfully.
One of the characteristics that elevates so much of classic film above current fare is the quality of the writing. Philip Dunne (with some guidance from William Wyler and polishing by Darryl Zanuck) wrote the version of the script that was finally used. Ford himself felt “It was as nearly perfect a script as could be possible.” Certainly, all the dialogue rings true and much of it has an economy that allows the visuals to shine through. It even manages to include a “damn” and a “hell” (both used very effectively) at a time when it was like pulling hen’s teeth to get such words past the Hays Office.
Richard Day and Nathan Juran’s art direction deserves particular mention. The Welsh mining town was completely created on a hillside in the Fox ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, as previously mentioned. It is so memorable whether in its look as the town of Huw’s childhood or as the derelict, almost-ghost-town of his adulthood, that it becomes a character itself in the film. Our first sight of it provides one of those indelible images that are inextricably linked with a particular film.
Fox has provided a sparkling new transfer of the film in its full frame original aspect ratio. This completely eliminates the floaters and virtually all of the debris that characterized the original DVD release. Blacks are smooth and velvety; whites are clear and bright; and shadow detail is very good except for one or two scenes. Edge effects are non-existent. High marks to Fox for this effort.
There are a variety of Dolby Digital sound tracks including English, French, and Spanish mono ones as well as English stereo. The latter is apparently not some artificially created stereo, but rather an original recording as Fox was known to experiment with stereo mixes at the time the film was made. All the tracks are in good shape, virtually free of age-related hiss or distortion. The stereo mix is not a dramatic improvement over the mono, but a subtle softening of it. Separation effects are lacking. In any event, whichever you choose, you’ll find the results quite satisfying in conveying the essence of the film. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
A nice supplementary package begins with a fine audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride and actress Anna Lee Nathan (who played Bronwyn in the film). When it comes to John Ford, McBride really knows his stuff and the results are a packed, entertaining, and very informative commentary indeed. Interspersed with McBride’s efforts are the occasional comment from Anna Lee. Overall, her comments don’t add too much of substance, but the simple fact of having any contribution from her on the disc some six decades after the film was made is extraordinarily welcome. The disc then offers us an episode of AMC Backstory that documents the making of the film in about 24 minutes. This is a useful feature that provides a significant amount of detail on the whole production process, although some of the information is duplicated during the course of McBride’s commentary. A short still gallery and theatrical trailers for How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman’s Agreement, and All About Eve round out the disc.
How Green Was My Valley is one of those films that stay with you forever once you’ve seen it. It never fails to evoke strong emotions and even the most hardened heart will be moved by the story of young Huw and his family. The film features a marvelous cast under the direction of John Ford at the height of his considerable powers. Fox finally gives it the DVD treatment it deserves with a top-notch new transfer and some nice supplements. Highly recommended.