Classic Movie 2019

Classic Movie Of The Week: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp, Anna Lee, Roddy McDowall

Director: John Ford

It’s the turn of the Century, and in a small village in Wales, mining is a way of life. It’s hard and dangerous job, thoug it’s honest work, but they hope that youngest son Huw will break the mold and do something else with his life. Meanwhile, beautiful daughter Angharad dreams of marrying for love, but the man of her dreams does not have enough money to marry her.

Really a work in nostalgia and sentimentalism, this film shows you how American’s (and perhaps anyone living in the New World) look back at stories told to them about their past in the Old Country. Here, miners sing together all the time, fathers are honest and fair, mothers are warm and gentle, there is a strong sense of community, everything is pretty and lush. But change is coming to the valley, and by the end of the film, many of the workers have left for America to find work and better conditions. The film is all a set in a studio lot, and looks like a postcard, a vision of another place, and it’s really lovely to escape into that time and place. But contrast it with films or stories like Angela’s Ashes and you can see the difference between a country remembered fondly and a film made in and by actual British or Irish people.

Director John Ford was of Irish descent and some of his films like to look back fondly at the land of his ancestors. I think we all like to do that, but it’s hard not to also notice the reality. The past, much like the grass in the expression, always looks greener. Of course, this film is set in Wales, but you get the idea, though you’d be forgiving for not knowing that, because the accents are really… well, they’re not Welsh. They’re sort of generally British-ish.

OK, so the film is nostalgic and shows a place that never was. Is that so bad? Not at all. The film isn’t doing any harm and I think even is aware that it’s sentimentalising things, by using voiceover and showing us that this is youngest boy Huw’s memories of the time and place. I think that we all look back on our lives at different points and remember the innocent time of our childhoods in a way that sort of deletes the ugly parts from memory and gives it a postcard glow. “When I was a boy….”

This is a film that many people still love and relate to today. The film makes people feel things, makes them weep a little weep over the trials of the family, but personally, I feel like the film is a little too nostalgic. It was never like this film remembers life to have been. But there’s nothing wrong with escaping into that world for a while, if you enjoy it. Famously known as the film that beat Citizen Kane to the Oscar, (Orson Welles, you pissed off too many people, even if your film was good) this film isn’t bad, but lacks Kane’s vitality, force, imagination and innovation. When you look at what else was coming out, this film was a bit of a dinosaur, even in it’s own time.

See It If: ah, the Old Country…. It’s an OK Sunday afternoon watch, but it’s all a little sacharrine for me.

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