Monday, January 23, 2012
How Green Was My Valley
John Ford's How Green Was My Valley is a gorgeous, achingly sad movie, a moving evocation of "the way things were" and the process by which the inexorable progress of industry and modernity slowly, steadily erodes the old ways, breaking apart the stability of family and shattering tradition. The film is steeped in the director's love of innocence and simple virtue, his rosy perspective on the past and its values. Because of this, the film is deliberately, lovingly old-fashioned in every way, paying tribute to a way of life that dies out one step at a time over the course of the film. The film even opens with an acknowledgment that the place and the time it is depicting is already long gone, changed forever, its emotions tinged with nostalgic regret and sorrow. In the opening voiceover, Huw (Roddy McDowall) prepares to leave home, packing his things while the sad voice on the soundtrack describes his memories of his home the way it used to be. The remainder of the film is set in the past, looking back wistfully at the glorious days of childhood happiness and familial closeness, and the slow disintegration of those virtues over many years of suffering and sadness.
Huw's family lives in a Welsh village in the shadow of a valley, and all the men work all day in the coal mine perched at the top of the valley, above the town, its smokestacks belching black clouds into the air above the town. Huw's memories stretch back to a time when he was a young boy, when the coal and the smoke had not yet stained the valley's green hills black. Huw's recollections of his boyhood begin in idyllic bliss, recalling the beauty of the valley, the love of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Morgan (Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood), the fresh-faced beauty and sweet smiles of his sister Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) and sister-in-law Bronwyn (Anna Lee), the camaraderie of his four older brothers. The happiness of these memories is deliberately exaggerated, marinating in over-ripe sentimentality and down-home charm. Looking back, Huw remembers his early boyhood as a paradise, rooted in the stern but loving ritual of home life: deep-seated respect for his parents, religion, love and generosity. This life is strongly ritualized and formalized, with a set of encoded traditions that drive daily life. Every day, the men go off to work in the mornings, then return home in the late afternoon, winding through the streets singing while the women and children come out to watch. They deposit their daily earnings with the matriarch of the family, settle down to dinner after prayers, and eat heartily without speaking — "I never met anyone whose talk was better than good food," Huw says. Afterwards, the young men are given their spending money, sent off to have the nightly fun that their day of hard work has earned them. It's a simple and sometimes difficult life but a fulfilling one, and Ford purposefully spends some time establishing this traditional existence's appeal and its grace, because the rest of the film is concerned with the erasure of all this tradition and stability.
Over the rest of the film, Ford slowly reveals how these traditional values and ways of life have been corrupted and made irrelevant by the advances of modernity. The men working at the coal mines are increasingly subjected to more and more injustice: their wages are reduced as cheap labor becomes readily available, and men who have been toiling in the mine for many years are unceremoniously fired and replaced by younger, poorer men who can be paid less for the same work. Mr. Morgan largely takes these changes in stride at first, convinced that the old standards of fairness and decency will remain intact, but the younger generation is not so trusting, and they struggle to form a union that could help them fight against the mistreatment they receive at the hands of the rich mine owners. Ford increasingly provides little way out. Religion offers some comfort in the form of the pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), but his kindly spirit and goodness are an anomaly in a church mostly ruled over by bitter old men. In one chilling scene, these older church dignitaries call a "meeting" at the end of mass to summon one poor young woman to stand in front of the congregation, where they castigate her for having a child out of wedlock, sneering angrily at her; Ford captures the wizened, shaking hand of one deacon in closeup, pointing an accusing finger at the woman. Scenes like this suggest that the goodness and kindness of the Morgan family is only one possible outcome of old-fashioned tradition, and that tradition can also be close-minded and judgmental, so stuck in its ways that there's no room for deviation.
This scene is a premonition of the way that Angharad — who is the only parishioner to storm out of the church, enraged by this display of cruelty disguised as religion — will later be treated by the town in which she grew up. Angharad loves Mr. Gruffydd, but their relationship is not meant to be, and instead Angharad marries the wealthy son of the mine owner and moves to South Africa. Her wedding is contrasted against the marriage of her brother Ivor (Patric Knowles) to Bronwyn earlier in the film. At Ivor and Bronwyn's wedding, the mood is joyful and ecstatic, with the bride and groom running through the town surrounded on all sides by revelers enthusiastically throwing rice, smiling and singing. At Angharad's wedding, the bride is grim and stoic, and her expression is matched by many in the crowd; though the groom at least is smiling, this is a joyless affair, and the singing only starts when Mr. Morgan shames the crowd, made up of men who have been beaten down and mistreated by the mine owners, into singing for his daughter's marriage. When Angharad later returns to town without her husband, it's no surprise, but she's not greeted with any joy then either: though no one cheered her marriage's beginning, they now flood the streets with vicious rumors about divorce, unfaithfulness and scandal centering on Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd, even though nothing has happened between them. There is another church "meeting," and again the viciousness and ugliness of traditional values are exposed.
Not that modernity offers anything better. Huw is the only member of his family to go to school, which Mr. Morgan at least sees as a path out of the family's poverty and lack of options. Mr. Morgan has already seen all of his other sons — except for Ivor, who dies in the mines — leave home for greater opportunities far away, and he recognizes that this is the inevitable fate of his family and his village, broken up by changes to which they are ill-suited to adapt. He hopes that Huw will be different, but at the regional school Huw encounters only prejudice and disdain, from his snooty teacher and his fellow students alike. He's beaten and abused, mocked for his old-fashioned ways and his relative poverty, while at home his mother has no patience for the abstract ideas and theoretical problems involved in education, seeing no practical applications for the things her son is learning. Perhaps influenced by his mother's pragmatism, as well as his boyish love for Bronwyn, when Huw finishes his education, he decides that all he wants is to work in the mines like the rest of his family rather than put his new knowledge of Latin and mathematics to use.
Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller's stark, dark black-and-white imagery contrasts against the aching nostalgia and sentiment of Ford's vision. The cinematography is darkly romantic, using a high-contrast style in which the blacks are rich and deep, occasionally broken by the bright, pure light shining through the valley. In the hills above the town, the trees cast latticework networks of shade across the rustling grass, while the town itself is brighter, with long shadows stretching across the roads winding along the rows of houses. The film's most beautiful images are inevitably the departures: images of the Morgan sons leaving home, two by two, for greater opportunities, their belongings slung across their backs, their silhouettes shrouded in darkness and the big country sky towering above them, tumultuous with clouds. This film's simple beauty perfectly captures the longing for home and tradition that inflects every minute of it. Even the mine, spewing smoke and ash across the countryside, is rendered with an awful beauty, a stark industrial simplicity that hovers above the town, slowly infecting it with a sickness that drains the village of its young people, its hope, its rock-solid reliance on a certain way of life.
This is sentimentality with real purpose behind it, sentiment and nostalgia honed into biting social commentary. Ford's vision is so pure, so direct, that it's near impossible to take his idealistic perspective on the old days at anything but face value. The film only occasionally stumbles, mostly because of the often lame accents. Also, Ford's decision to have Huw played by the young McDowall throughout the film becomes very strained later in the movie, when the boy begins working in the mine and living with his brother's widow — it's obvious that he is supposed to be a young man at this point, as he was in the Richard Llewellyn novel that Ford was adopting, rather than a little boy. This structural and casting misstep aside, How Green Was My Valley is a staggering achievement, a film of tremendous beauty and melancholy, a deeply sad but never despairing portrait of the way things were, and the way they'll never be again.