How Green Was My Valley (1941)

How Green Was My Valley is known for beating out Citizen Kane for the 1941 Best Picture Oscar and while it’s certainly easy to look down at the Academy Award in retrospect, the truth is that How Green Was My Valley is a fantastic film. Is it better than Citizen Kane? I don’t think so, but it certainly is a fantastic film worth checking out, a beautiful powerful tale about a Welsh mining village.

The film is told through the recollection of Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), the youngest son in the Morgan family. His father is one of the most respected men in the village, a veteran of the coal mine and an outstanding member of the community. As Huw ruminates on those childhood days, the triumphs and troubles of the small village unfold.

From beginning to end, the film is narrated by an older version of Huw, and while (contrary to popular belief) I’m not a huge fan of narration, here it is essential to the film. It adds a texture to the story and also provides a different context from which to understand the events of the film. If they simply played out, this would be a very standard drama, but through the narration it becomes a heartfelt yearning for a time that was simple, yet troubling.

And why would anyone yearn to revisit such a time of hardship, a time when the town was going through turmoil as immigration and economics led to lower wages and adoption of political ideas contrary to tradition? For Huw, it would be a return to the time spend within the family unit, a moment to come back to the time when for better or worse, everyone was under the same roof.

It’s the portrait of the family which makes How Green Was My Valley such a powerful film. From Huw’s wise and stern father to his headstrong and domineering mother, the family dynamic is both a point of great pride and strong contention. As the film unfolds, the sons grow up into men and the daughter grows into love, the family unit begins to shift, dissolve and move onto a new stage in the cycle of life.

If the film has one fatal flaw, it’s that it does a poor job at developing a lot of the older brothers. While they’re express different thoughts, it’s hard to distinguish them as distinct personalities, in part because there are so many of them. They aren’t a key focus of the story, but it certainly seems like there is more of their story to be told.

The film also has a fantastic portrait of religion as it unfolds in the small town. It’s the major construct of the town, and yet the film uses it to expose the hatred, deceit and hypocrisy that emerges when it becomes an institution ruled by the wrong people. The young pastor of the church is a paragon of love and grace, but is judged by the community for not fitting their puritanical sensibilities.

Therefore, in a lot of ways How Green Was My Valley is a more subtle film that is more about the natural outgrowth of characters throughout the film. It has no conventional narrative to speak of, which might make it challenging for audiences looking for that hook. Those willing to let the film take them through the journey will reap the rewards of a fantastic, well developed portrait of the family.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing