Thursday 15 December 2011

1,001 Films: "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)

Dating from John Ford's prestige phase, How Green Was My Valley was the film that infamously beat out Citizen Kane to 1941's Best Picture Oscar. It's a year in the life of a Welsh mining community, as observed through the eyes of Master Roddy McDowell, who appears to have spent the first six months of it confined to bed and the second being bullied or caned or sent down the pit, yet nevertheless grows up to become a fully-fledged narrator looking back on these formative moments with that mix of fondness and rueful melancholy that has proved to be catnip for awards committees ever since.

There are pockets of nice, understated, touching activity in its two hours, and its depiction of a strike is unusual for incorporating leftist views one wouldn't normally expect to find in a Ford film, yet the screenplay treats the eldest brother's unionising as secondary to the choral work for which he's recognised by the authorities. Between this ongoing Eisteddfod (and boy, is there a lot of "Men of Harlech": so much so that it's almost a relief whenever a fire or cave-in at the mine reduces the baritone section), the film shapes up - if that's the word, exactly - as a chronicle of births, deaths and marriages, one damn episode after another, the whole rather too dependent on top-billed Walter Pidgeon's Mr. Griffiths, a ceaseless voice of reason and experience, to hold it together.

"Are you a man or a saint?," McDowell's sister asks of the latter, not without reason; Ford proves more enthusiastic about teaching a class full of kids how to beat up their teacher than he is in trying to make earthly sense of this martyr, who's prepared to give up the girl he loves because he thinks he's smart enough to know what's best for her. It is prestigious, but stodgy and unpersuasive with it, going a long way towards establishing the tradition whereby the Academy pays lip service to something innovative within the nomination list, then plumps for something conservative and unremarkable - a safe Sunday matinee choice - when it finally comes to handing over the statuettes.

How Green Was My Valley is available on DVD through Fox.

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