“How Green Was My Valley,” the 1941 film directed by John Ford, tells the story in flashback of a Welsh coal mining village and how the Morgan family adjusts and changes through trials of economic uncertainty, dangerous working conditions, labor troubles, loss of family through death and emigration and scandal. Ford filmed the movie in black and white in Malibu, California. Although Ford originally wanted to shoot it in Technicolor, the Second World War precluded him from filming in Wales. Malibu in color could never mimic Wales, but black and white photography and innovative set design captures the atmosphere and the period quite well.
The story, from a popular 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, begins as Huw Morgan packs his bags to leave his native village after 50 years. A long narration follows with an extended flashback that begins decades earlier and introduces the village, the coal mines and the Morgan family — a mother, a father, 5 boys and 1 girl. We see Huw as a wide-eyed boy in a loving family with no reason to doubt his future. Roddy McDowell plays Huw in one of the best child performances ever put on film. McDowall stays natural and believable throughout the movie, and performs well with co-stars Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon, and Donald Crisp.
The troubles that occur in the movie drive many in the village to leave for England, Canada, South Africa and America. Huw, the first in his family to get an education and reach for something beyond working in the coal mines, maintains a boyish crush on his sister-in-law Bronwyn, played by Anna Lee. The attraction continues and provides much of his motivation for staying in the village despite hardships and increasingly bleaker economic conditions. This childlike sense of loyalty to Bronwyn, his family and his valley provides the thematic base for the story, but it also stifles Huw’s freedom, imagination and courage. Huw seems to have no interest in the broader events taking place in the village, such as the labor troubles.
The plot also tells the story of Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), the new preacher who stubbornly devotes his life to raising the consciousness of the people in the village. Morgan daughter Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) loves him and wants to marry him, but Mr. Morgan (Donald Crisp) brokers her off to the coal mine owner’s son. She stays the good daughter and marries the owner’s son, but continues to pine for Mr. Gruffydd. The whispers of the deacons at the chapel and the hypocritical townspeople about Angharad bring more troubles to the Morgan family, but only Huw gathers the strength to fight it with her. By the time this happens, I lost any sentimental feeling for this awful village.
This unforgettable film stays in memory long after one sees it. Ford achieves remarkable performances from the mostly British cast. He deftly adds touches of humor that lighten the story; otherwise, it would be too bleak to watch. Ford doesn’t move the camera much, which keeps the audience locked into the situation and emotion of each scene. I wonder if audiences in 1941 thought that Ford really filmed it in Wales.