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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

How Green Was My Valley (1941)



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How Green Was My Valley is remembered as the film that unjustly beat Citizen Kane to the Best Picture Oscar in one of the most ignominious (in retrospect) moments in Oscar history. This is unfortunate, because in many other years, it would have deserved the award. It stands with Stagecoach and The Searchers in representing director John Ford's best work. Certainly it is his best non-western.

The movie is an adaptation of Richard Llewellyn's novel about a Welsh coal-mining town and the difficult changes that occur as the economy and the needs of the industry fluctuate. It's perfect material for Ford, who is perhaps better than any other director at evoking the sense of passing times, forgotten virtues, and idyllic lifestyles. He lent this atmosphere to a great many of his westerns and, here, proves arguably even more effective at doing so for turn of the century Wales.

This sense, however, is merely the backdrop in the emotional tapestry that makes up the film. How Green Was My Valley is rife with feeling and sentiment: where many films shoot for one or two emotions, possibly not even achieving them, this one manages humor, pathos, affection, triumph, and tragedy, just to name a few. It's heavy one moment, and light the next. Such is life, of course: in a film that spans many years in the lives of its characters, it would be short-sighted to stay focused on single emotions or plot threads. Earlier, I made a metaphor about a "tapestry." This is an apt illustration of How Green Was My Valley: in its narrative, its themes, and its depiction of the lives of its characters and the society they inhabit. It's a beautiful picture.