John Ford’s, How Green Was My Valley
“How Green Was My Valley”, a novel by British novelist, Richard Llewellyn was published in 1939 and immediately became a best-seller bringing the author international acclaim. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy (Huw Morgan) and depicts life in a South Wales Valley coal mining community where Llewellyn had spent time as a child with his grandfather. The author would write three sequels to “How Green Was My Valley” but none would reach the heights of the first story, a story that caught the eye of Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox.
Darryl Zanuck purchased the right’s to Llewellyn’s novel as soon as he was able, recognizing not only the public’s love for the story, but its potential as a feature film. His intention from the start was to make a Technicolor epic for 20th Century Fox on the scale of a Gone With the Wind and cared to spare no expense. Story purchased, Zanuck immediately went out and hired William Wyler to direct who, in turn, got to work on the script. The plan was to film the picture in South Wales, where the story takes place. Before long, however, those plans fell through as one of the first targets of Hitler’s airforce when the Battle of Britain erupted was South Wales. The epic idea was immediately scratched when Zanuck was forced to shoot the “green valley” in the hills of Malibu, California, which would only “look” green if filmed in black and white. It’s worth noting also that for the planned, “epic” version of the film Zanuck was going to hire Tyrone Power to play Huw as an adult.
While the Second World War raging in Europe played havoc with Darryl Zanuck’s plans for the film, it also proved a blessing in disguise in that it brought forth the perfect young actor to portray Huw Morgan in the film. Roddy McDowall was forced to leave England for America and in a fluke landed the central role in How Green Was My Valley when he was asked to test for the film two weeks after his arrival. William Wyler fell in love with him. All preliminaries in place, the shorter, black and white version of the film was set to move forward. Or was it?
After reviewing the script, Fox’s Board of Directors decided to reject the picture for political reasons – the film’s pro-labor theme was very unpopular at the time and given heightened awareness of politics with a war looming, they didn’t want that kind of attention or potential controversy focused on the studio. Zanuck fought to get his film made but during the time it took him to do so, William Wyler’s contract with Fox expired. The director stepped away and toward his next project, The Little Foxes, a film that would go on to compete with How Green Was My Valley for a Best Picture Oscar.
Enter John Ford to helm Zanuck’s project. Ford had been on loan to another studio and finished just in time to step in. At the time John Ford was Fox’s ace director, already considered a genius. He had 25 years of filmmaking under his belt.
“A difficult old devil. But, the greatest director that the picture business has ever known.” – Maureen O’Hara
How Green Was My Valley started filming in June, 1941.
As the film opens we hear the single chime of a church bell and see the arms of a man packing his belonging with a shawl his mother used to wear when she went to the market many years before. The man is 50 years old now and is packing to leave his valley forever. The camera pans over to the only window in the room as he speaks of memories, “memories that remain a living truth within his mind.” We too are then transported to his life from many years before, when he was a 12-year-old boy. (Now I warn that spoilers lie ahead!)
“Green it was and possessed of the plenty of the earth.”
- The Morgan Family
As Huw Morgan recounts the days of his youth we are enthralled by his story, his memories of the place and the people.
Huw Morgan – a twelve-year-old boy through whose perspective the story of How Green Was My Valley is told. Roddy McDowall is brilliant as the central character – an affecting performance on many levels – as a young boy, coming of age in the Welsh mining town. Through his memories we live the joys and sorrows of his family and see the incredible passion and wisdom of one far beyond his years. Huw is the youngest of the Morgan children and there are several. As raconteur he is the focus, the one around which all other characters revolve.
Gwilym Morgan – Huw’s father, played by Donald Crisp. Aside from being the patriarch of the Morgan family, Gwilym is also a leader and friend to all in the Valley. A moral man who values family, respect and manners above all else. A man of deep faith, Gwilym instilled all of his beliefs and traditions in his children and they abide without question for all of their lives. It is only when their livelihood is threatened that we see a change in Gwilym’s world and a split in the family that will never quite heal – for the times, they are a’ changin’.
Scene: Gwilym Morgan forbids speaking at the dinner table as the family meal is a solemn ritual, a time to celebrate and contemplate on the riches God has bestowed upon them. All of his children, no matter how old, would abide by his rule and respect his wishes. Until one day when the threat of unemployment looms and job fairness is on everyone’s mind, the older sons cannot keep quiet. They must speak out against the injustice they feel is being forced upon all the working men in the village. Too few jobs for so many men who are hungry and willing to work for meager wages. An argument ensues between father and sons during which the sons are asked to leave for as much as he loves them, Gwilym cannot put up with talk of “socialism” – it is against God. Disappointment and hurt engulfs the man whose views are deeply entrenched in tradition. Dejected with head bowed, the old man sits at the dinner table with only his youngest son at the other end. The boy makes a few noises with his plate, deliberate, a sign to his father that he is not alone. Simply, without looking up the old man says, “Yes, my son, I know you are there.” Such a touching moment and the joy on the boy’s face at being acknowledged by the one he admires most is ever-touching. A gorgeous moment on film.
Whether by way of a simple, everyday act like family dinner or the procession of working men filing toward the collieries en masse, ritual is at the center of How Green Was My Valley, as is so often the case with John Ford films. Enhanced by a pageantry that doesn’t allow us to take anything for granted – mostly all that really matters in life is front and center. Often what makes a Ford film art. In this particular film Ford takes the controversial, political subplot, what splits the Morgan family and somehow relishes in bringing us ever closer to the heart of the film through it, illustrated by the scene I just described.
Beth Morgan – Huw’s mother memorably portrayed by Sara Allgood. Mrs. Morgan is an uneducated but loving woman, devoted to her husband and children, easily angered, yet charming. As Huw describes, “for if my father was the head of the house, my mother was its heart.” A heart that wouldn’t think twice about telling her husband and children off if needed with a quick, “Oh go and scratch!” whenever they get on her nerves and that would threaten the devil himself if any of her family were in danger of being hurt.
Through Beth Morgan, as nurturer, we feel the deepest as life serves her unbearable heartache. Her children leave her either by necessity or by death. And, she accepts and survives it all with a resolute grace and unremitting humor.
Scene: As we see Mrs. Morgan about her business in the kitchen one evening, young Huw sits at the kitchen table with his father and the preacher, Mr. Gruffydd who is tutoring him in math. As the preacher explains the math problem at hand: “The bathtub holds 100 gallons of water. “A” fills it at the rate of 20 gallons per minute, and “B” at the rate of 10 gallons per minute.” Mrs. Morgan, somewhat intrigued now pays close attention. “Now then,” the preacher continues, “”C” is a hole that empties the bathtub at the rate of 5 gallons per minute. How long to fill the tub?” Mrs. Morgan is both outraged and humored as she will never understand anyone trying to fill a bathtub full of holes. Nor does she think it is a worthy lesson for a child. “It’s only a math problem” her husband assures her. But she’ll have none of it, “Only a mad man would think of pouring water in a bathtub full of holes!” Exasperated she leaves the kitchen.
Angharad Morgan – Huw’s sister and the only daughter of Gwilym and Beth Morgan. Angharad is played by the then 19-year-old, Maureen O’Hara. As the only daughter in the Morgan family, Angharad fulfills her duties, which entail catering to her working father and brothers and assisting her mother with chores, the roles she must play until time comes when she marries, hopefully into a better life, and caters to her husband.
Merddyn Gruffydd – the preacher, played by Walter Pidgeon. Mr. Gruffydd, the spiritual leader of the Valley becomes a mentor and friend to young Huw. His teachings are more common sense and of the heart, rather than of the “old,” judgmental ways some of the townspeople prefer. He views life simply and through him Huw is allowed a view of the world outside of the Valley, the possibilities that exist.
Scene: Having suffered an accident, Huw is rendered immobile, unsure of whether he’ll ever walk again. And afraid. Mr. Gruffydd visits with the boy often, talking to him and reminding him that anything is possible. On the first day he brings Huw a book with which he can pass the time as he recovers. As the preacher takes the book out of his bag and thumbs through it he sighs, “I could almost wish that I were lying there in your place if it meant reading this book again for the first time.” God, I love that. Such a beautiful statement about the joy and wonders of reading, exploring the world and going on adventures one could not take part in otherwise. The book is “Treasure Island,” one of the several works Mr. Gruffydd would present to Huw as he later recollects, “all the noble books, which have lived in my mind ever since.” What a gift!
And it is not only Huw who is taken with Mr. Gruffydd. From the first moment their eyes meet during his first stint as preacher, when he presides at the wedding of her older brother, Angharad’s heart belongs to him.
Scene: Mr. Gruffydd is in the Morgan house one day, trying to bring peace between the men wanting to wage a strike against the owners of the coal mines and those who prefer to not make waves and accept what may come their way. He is successful as the men agree to disagree peacefully The meeting over, the preacher stands looking out of the kitchen window contemplating. Angharad enters the room to attend to her chores but is taken aback by the sight of Mr. Gruffydd. When he notices her he quickly turns to help by putting coal in the stove as she was about to do. She then notices that his hands are dirty, looks at them closely and notices they’ve the similar “look” of the hands of her father and brothers, the hands of a man from the collieries, a working man. She’s moved but quickly changes direction to get him some soap. He tells her not to worry as he’s already wiping them on his handkerchief…
Angharad: Look now, you are king in the chapel. But I will be queen in my own kitchen.
Mr. Gruffydd: You will be queen wherever you walk.
Angharad: What does that mean?
Mr. Gruffydd: …I should not have said it.
Mr. Gruffydd: I have no right to speak to you so.
Angharad: [stopping him] Mr. Gruffydd, if the right is mine to give, you have it.
Even by noting the exchange I can’t do the scene justice. It’s warm and romantic and innocent, in a way. Just beautiful. The preacher, now nervous, scurries off.
Although there comes a time when these two openly profess their love for each other, Angharad is relegated to a loveless marriage to another man. It is the full-of-hot-air-I-am-better-than-thou son of the owner of the coal mines who asks for her hand in marriage. Angharad feels no love for him, but she agrees to the union, urged by Mr. Gruffydd who has little means with which to offer her a good life. Needless to say, she is miserable from the day of her wedding. How the marriage and relationships involved end up will be left for your discovery.
There are many other wonderful characters in How Green Was My Valley, too many to mention individually just as there is scene after scene that fills your heart. Because he’s so memorable, I will give a special mention to the peripheral character of Cyfartha, one of the many men in the Valley played by John Ford favorite, Barry Fitzgerald. As he does in other Ford films, most notably for me in The Quiet Man, Fitzgerald offers comic relief in a small but key role in this film. He is always worthy of attention and one cannot help but give it as he steals the scenes he appears in. By the way, as most know, Maureen O’Hara was another Ford favorite and How Green is the first of five films she made with the famed director. For a tyrant, Ford was incredibly loyal to his actors and they to him.
It always occurs to me that John Ford must have also been incredibly sensitive. I say that because it is obvious in How Green Was My Valley. His had to have been a huge heart open to emotion for without it he could not have achieved what he did here. And what he did here was make a story about a particular time and place come to life with the heart of all of us everywhere from every time. It is no wonder this film was his favorite.
I’ll limit myself to mentioning just two more aspects of the film that stand out for me – The film’s music by Alfred Newman is an enchanting score filled with joy and melancholy. One of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. And Ford’s gift with the visual, his mastery of the sweeping shot that is both breathtaking to behold and intimate in feel is also present throughout How Green. Only he could get to the most sensitive aspect of a personal scene with a wide shot – as incomprehensible as it is wondrous.
How Green Was My Valley topped the box office when it was released in 1941. The film received ten Academy Award nominations and won five, including Best Picture over favorite, Citizen Kane. The film’s other wins were for Best Actor in a Supporting role for Donald Crisp – Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White – Best Cinematography, Black-and-White – and a Ford win, his third Best Director Oscar, with what many perceive to this day as an upset over the directorial debut of newsmaker and “boy genius,” Orson Welles. John Ford’s previous wins were for The Informer (1935) and the previous year for The Grapes of Wrath (1940). How Green Was My Valley was also selected to the Library of Congress’, National Film Registry in 1990.
I jotted down the following quote from an original review of How Green Was My Valley and can’t for the life of me remember where I got it, but it is worth noting…
“…the film is extremely fortunate” in regards to the elements, which weave together a brilliant tapestry for movie audiences of all ilk to enjoy.”
It is for everyone and it is we who are fortunate. I was moved to tears the first time I saw How Green Was My Valley when I was in my teens and I cried again just last week when I watched it as a refresher for this post – for both the film’s joy and sorrow. Its humanity, emotional impact, beauty and the brilliance of its cast, make this film worthy of remembering much like the people, lives and memories it depicts.
Huw Morgan: [narrating] 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.”
The 1940s is my favorite decade in film so I was thrilled to see the topic as the focus of a blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA). This entry is my contribution to the blogathon, my first official entry as a member of the CMBA and post it also as an official THANK YOU to them for accepting this humble blog for membership.
One last thing – as I read through reviews for this post I was taken aback by the outrage over my chosen film’s win for Best Picture over Citizen Kane at the 1942 Academy Awards. As a result, I was compelled to note my two cents in proper form and did so in a post I titled, 1942 Oscars – Heart over Brains. If interested you can take a look at it here.