It tells the story of a simple family that lives in a mining town and how time brings a lot of changes into the quiet valley and their quiet lives. How Green was my Valley is a sometimes very slow movie and some parts of the story are clearly superior to others but John Ford created an almost poetic beauty in his images and in the characters that it becomes the kind of movie that may often seem like ‘nothing too special’ while you are watching it but it leaves such a strong impression that you can’t help but become more and more fascinated.
The story is told by the voice-over of a grown-up Huw Morgan who tells about his life, the life of his parents and his siblings. As a young boy, Huw is played by Roddy McDowell who gives a remarkable child-performance that seems to understand both the realism and the sentiment that forms this movie. In the parts of the parents, both Donald Crisp and Sarah Allgood deliver extremely strong and unforgettable performances. Donald Crisp lives up to all the expectations that the voice-over creates in his character – he seems wise, gentle and loving without ever appearing like a character who is idealized in retrospect. Sarah Allgood’s speech to the townspeople is one of the greatest moments in the movie and even though she doesn’t reach the level of excellence that Jane Darwell showed one year earlier in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, her strong-willed, stern but ultimately loving mother is a wonderful creation. Walter Pidgeon gives probably the greatest performance of his career and it’s wonderful to see him being allowed to shine in his role without being overshadowed by Greer Garson. Maureen O’Hara is extremely touching as Huw’s unhappy sister.
How Green was my Valley seems overshadowed by the sentimental feelings for better times but it’s actually a much more realistic and practical look in the past than expected – Huw’s voice talks about the old times gone by with regret but the movie shows that the times in the village were never really simple and only Huw’s cognition as a child seemed to have prevented him from seeing this. Evil gossip, unhappy love, inhuman working condition, a village torn apart by hate – all these things existed in the village all the time and if the past seems like a better time to us now it’s only because we tend to forget all negative memories.
How Green was my Valley beautifully combines the structure of the plot with gorgeous visual support – some of the images that John Ford creates almost look like paintings. The birth of a child with the shadows on the wall, the wounded workers coming up from the mine or the women look up to the mine at the end are only some of this overwhelming images. But How Green was my Valley never puts style over substance and offers various intriguing and thought-provoking plots like the discord between Huw’s brothers and their father over the work at the mine, the almost tyranny of a few religious men over the people in the village or the marriage of Huw’s sister to a rich man despite her love for somebody else. The only flawed storyline is Huw’s life in school which is rather exaggerated and the fact that Huw decides to leave school and work in the mines also sends a rather wrong message for my taste.
Citizen Kane may be the movie everybody today talks about – but the Academy has still no reason to be ashamed of this selection for Best Picture.