Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox Studio Classics DVD
John Ford’s 1941 film, How Green Was My Valley, is an affectionate coming-of-age story, set within a family drama, and played out in front of the epic struggle of the residents of a Welsh mining town. Roddy MacDowall, in his first film role, plays Huw, the youngest son of the large Morgan family. The film follows Huw through the delicate internal transition from child to man as he watches the mine tear his family apart one member at a time. The film is beautiful in both imagery and story and is full of rich, complex emotion without resorting to cheap, unearned sentiment.
How Green Was My Valley was originally intended to be Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s answer to Gone with the Wind. It was to be directed by William Wyler and to star Katherine Hepburn as the eldest Morgan daughter and Tyrone Power as little Huw. The film was to be shot on location in Wales and in Technicolor, so the audience could see just how green that valley really was. The start of World War II, to make a gross understatement, changed those plans. John Ford replaced Wyler, several of the parts were recast, and the lush, verdant Welsh village was recreated on an eighty-acre ranch in, incredibly, Malibu. The changes might all have been for the best, though, as the film won not only the Oscar for Best Picture of 1941 (beating, among others, Citizen Kane), but also the Oscars for Best Actor (Donald Crisp), Art Direction, Cinematography, and Director (the third out of four and the second consecutive Ford would receive).
While Ford was not the originally intended director of the film and took over well into pre-production, the film is suffused with his particular obsessions and personal filmmaking touches. Visually, the film is strikingly composed and features strong background light in interior scenes, often streaming in through open doors or windows, in contrast with darker, often shadowy foregrounds. The film features several of Ford’s stock company bit players such as Barry Sullivan, Arthur Shields, Mary Gordon, and Mae Marsh. The heavy drama of the film is lightened by cheerful, often physical comedy that sometimes borders on the eccentric (two words: Dai Bando). Befitting his start as a silent film director, Ford often favors actions over words, pantomime over verbal exposition. Despite the exquisitely written script, one could watch this film with the sound off and understand the story completely, so strong is Ford’s command of visual language.
I’ve repeatedly mentioned the visual beauty of this film, and there is a reason why. The film’s receipt of the Oscar for cinematography is significant because so much critical noise has been made regarding the innovations of Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane. It’s worth remembering, however, that several of Toland’s innovations were inspired by the work of John Ford. The celebrated visible ceilings in Kane that hid overhead microphones are present as well in How Green Was My Valley and were an innovation of Ford for Stagecoach, made way back in 1939. Toland’s famous deep focus is also present in Arthur C. Miller’s work for How Green Was My Valley, only it calls less attention to itself. It’s a common tendency of the film industry to award visual beauty over technical innovation when it comes to cinematography, but the distinction between these two films is a particular curiosity. The Academy’s choice of Miller’s work over Toland’s is considered by some film scholars the triumph of the use of deep focus in visual and narrative context over the use of deep focus as a showy technical device. Indeed, at least one of Kane’s famed deep focus shots had to be faked with optical effects, whereas Ford eschewed any such trickery whenever possible. The man didn’t even want close-ups or camera movements in his films unless they were absolutely necessitated by the action. Of course, all of this is not to say that Ford’s is necessarily a better film than Welles” is, but perhaps the old man should be given his due as a visually innovative director. After all, when asked who most influenced his filmmaking, it was Welles who replied, “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”