Saturday, December 6, 2008

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

There is no fence nor hedge round Time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my Valley as it is today - and it is gone - and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful. ~from How Green Was My Valley (1941)
St. Nicholas being the patron saint of miners, I thought it only appropriate to recall the John Ford masterpiece How Green Was My Valley. Based upon the novel by Richard Llewellyn, the film follows the travails of a Welsh coal mining family in the late Victorian era, as seen through the eyes of the boy Huw Morgan, played by Roddy McDowall. John Ford had the gift of making every shot into a work of art, using the contrasts of light and shadow, snow and coal dust, sunshine and smoke from the colliery, to tell the tale. As the wages are decreased, and the quality of life declines, the film grows darker.

In the beginning of the film the Morgan family live in thriving simplicity in one of the row houses provided for the miners. The table is laden with food, their basic material needs appear to be met as the father and brothers are able to provide adequately for the family by their labors in the "colliery." The Morgans enjoy the support of the close knit community, led by a rather utopian-minded young minister Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon.) Welsh songs punctuate the film, especially at weddings and other festivities. Life was plain and toilsome but there was magic to be found in the very ordinariness. However, as the industrial revolution churns along, and the greed of the mine owners grow, the wages decrease, there are strikes, the work becomes more laborious and dangerous than ever. The villagers become distrustful of each other; the Morgan family begins to break apart as the sons must leave the Valley to seek employment elsewhere.

The poignant romance between Angharad Morgan, Huw's sister, and Mr. Gruffydd the minister swirls at the center of the drama. Mr. Gruffydd rebuffs Angharad, heartrendingly portrayed by Maureen O'Hara, because he does not want her to have to share his impoverished lifestyle. She marries the mine owner's wealthy stuffed-shirt of a son; the stony expression on Angharad's face at her wedding bodes no good. When she returns to the Valley after being away for some years, the women of the village begin to circulate calumnies about her and Mr. Gruffydd. The fact that Angharad and her lost love have had absolutely no contact with each other does not keep the gossip from besmirching the good name of her entire family. Mr Gruffydd confronts his congregation, rebuking them for their hypocrisy in one of the most scathing film sermons of all time:
Why do you come here? Why do you dress your hypocrisy in black and parade before your God on Sunday? From love? No. For you have shown that your hearts are too withered to receive the love of your Divine Father. I know why you have come - I have seen it in your faces Sunday after Sunday as I've stood here before you. Fear has brought you here. Horrible, superstitious fear. Fear of divine retribution - a bolt of fire from the skies. The vengeance of the Lord and the justice of God. But you have forgotten the love of Jesus. You disregard His sacrifice. Death, fear, flames, horror and black clothes. Hold your meeting then, but know if you do this in the name of God and in the house of God, you blaspheme against Him and His Word.
After the mine explosion, when Mr. Gruffydd descends into the depths to search for the injured Mr. Morgan, his eyes meet Angharad's; their hands clasp for an instant before he disappears into the pit.
Light pierces the clouds, as Mrs. Morgan sees her husband, killed in the accident, in the place of glory. It is then that young Huw, the narrator, says of his father: "Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then."



Linda said...

This is such an extraordinary film. I hope I can see it again soon. I have never read the book though, but it sounds like a great book to read during a winter break. Thank you for this post.

Anna B. said...

one of my favorite movies...

Unknown said...

Oh, I like this one too. Maureen O'Hara is one of my favorite actresses.