John Ford’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’ – A Thematic Review

By Paul Batters

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‘Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still – real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then’.

One of Hollywood’s greatest directors, John Ford, famously described himself as a director ‘who makes westerns’. Indeed, Ford raised the bar regarding the quality of the western – taking it beyond the long established standard, as evidenced in films such as Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Fort Apache. Ford possessed the reputation of a tough, hard-drinking Irishman yet he directed three sensitive, powerful and iconic films, which remain exemplars in the pantheon of classic film; The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), The Quiet Man (1945) and the focus of this article How Green Was My Valley (1941).

How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a story told in retrospect of a Welsh family of coal-miners, impacted upon by the changes that come to their village, as well as the challenges of life – both of which they have little control over. The power of the film lies in its’ central themes, which are universal to all families and the individuals within the family unit.

Let us look deeper into the themes and messages of the film.

For me, the theme that reaches deepest is the power of memory. It is at the very beginning of the film and at its’ bittersweet ending – and of course permeates the very essence of the story. Indeed, the story is told as the narrator, Huw Morgan, is about to leave the village he so dearly loves. As he is about to leave, he retells his story and the visual imprint of the impoverished and dying village of the present evaporates into the green and beautiful village of the narrator’s past. The village-scape, his family and the people of the village come alive, accentuated with the beautiful musical score by Alfred Newman. It is a dream-like moment, where as Huw points out, he remembers his home before the grey sludge of the mines took over the valley. What remains is the durability of memory and at the end of the film, he says of his home “it’s still there”; alive in his mind and heart and the sounds of his brothers singing, the love of his family and the moments and lessons of his life which cannot be erased.

The adult Huw (Irving Pichel) narrates the story but we as the audience experience the tale through Huw as a young boy (Roddy McDowall) and the landmark moments in his life. Indeed, two voices of the same person speak and memory brings back the voice of the child. It is through the child’s eyes that the story comes alive. What we eventually realize as audience is that whilst a child can be quite invisible to the adults around him or her, what they see and remember can be quite vivid and their perceptions are quite strong, even if they don’t have the full capacity to articulate those perceptions at that time.

One of the most touching moments reflecting this is evident during a difficult turning point for the family, when three of Huw’s brothers refuse to bow to their father’s authority. Differing over how the workers in the mine should address their concerns, the family at the dinner table becomes torn and the brothers leave the house. The father, Gwilym (Donald Crisp) sits alone at the table, resigned to the fate of his family, with Huw at the other end, sitting silently. Not wanting to feel invisible, Hugh clanks his knife and fork against his plate and then coughs, trying to get his father’s attention. Without looking up, the father responds, “Yes my son, I know you are there”.

Obviously, family is a central theme, as the film focuses on the story of the Morgan family. The tight-knit Morgan household is a place where great love is shown. The nature of rite and ritual is also important in establishing family norms and structure, as shown by the men’s daily routine of washing the coal dust from their bodies and how the family sits together at the table. Huw’s father, Gwilym, is a solid and hard-working, sitting at the head of the table and leading the family in prayer. His mother, Beth (Sara Allgood), is kind, loving and also strong in character, moving around the table to much sure that her family is looked after and always being ‘the last to start her dinner and the first to finish’. Family roles are clear and obviously paternalistic in the context of 19th century Wales, where Huw reminisces ‘whilst my father was the head of the family, my mother was its’ heart’.

But despite the closeness of family and clarity of role and position, turmoil results when outside forces question the values and norms of the household. What will befall the Morgans, befalls every family – the divisions which can split a family through religion, politics and the questioning of authority in the household. The normal and natural challenging of parental authority must eventuate, as does the child becoming an adult and developing their own ideas and feelings. The family becomes divided as industrial turmoil hits the mine and threats of striking and the forming of a union for the mine-workers, splits the class-conscious brothers from their conservative and too-trusting father. Whilst there will be a settlement of sorts and the love of the family will endure, it cannot completely withstand the harsh economic realities and Huw’s older brothers will move on elsewhere. Three of the sons will move to America, which in those times meant that they would never see their family again – a reality that their father, Gwilym, sadly recognizes when announcing the send-off he’s planning.

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On a larger scale the change in the family structure reveals the inevitability of change in the greater world, whether we want to face it or not. The impacts of change in the film are shown as negative – loss of community and the values that held it together, the division of family, the change that the mine brings to the village and the impacts that greater change outside the village brings to the community. The ‘hero’ of the film, the new pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), tries to bring positive change to the community but eventually feels defeated, broken by the hypocrisy of his church, the ugliness that has crept into the community and the love which he can never hope to realize for Huw’s sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara). The physical change, which occurs to the village from green valley to slag heap becomes an allegory for the change in the community. Huw feels this deeply and clarifies this feeling when he narrates the story. The change is irreversible and Hugh knows this, seeing that his village will never be the same and of course neither will he.

Yet there are lessons learned from the struggles, which also provide a new light and opportunity for growth in Huw. The fight against injustice becomes an important theme in the film and Huw not only watches the battle against exploitation and poverty by the miners but the fight that the pastor undertakes as well. He fights against ignorance and gossip and stands with the miners in their fight as well. Huw sees the Christ-model alive and bright in the pastor’s mission, particularly when he stands against the deacons in his church. Encouraging the miners to form a union, he is accused of stepping outside his ministry, to which he responds ‘my mission is to fight whatever stands between man and God’. His final speech to the community is perhaps one of film’s finest, railing against those whose faith is founded in the fear of God but not the love of Jesus. The hypocrisy of religion and its’ failings as human institution meant to provide comfort, as Angharad points out, is accentuated by the pastor’s very real Christianity. As Mr. Gruffydd is about to leave, he looks at Hugh who looks back with great sorrow. But Huw’s steps to fighting injustice begin that moment, when he follows the pastor out of the church, ignoring the call of the deacons to remain.

As the audience we watch Huw growing up and facing the obstacles, difficulties and joys that come with the process. It is an obvious theme yet a very universal one. Whilst we see the narrator as a boy, we also experience his witnessing of the change in his family and his village and community. Just as importantly, we also experience how growing up impacts on him. Huw must at some point leave he safety of his family, when he begins school and must deal with not only a bully in the classroom but the harsh cruelty of his teacher. The beatings from the bully and the teacher reflect the harshness of life and whilst his older and stronger brothers could easily solve these problems, Huw shows fortitude and growth when he says he must deal with it himself. To his mother’s horror, Huw’s father arranges for him to learn to box and eventually the school bully is dealt with. The violence of youth is shown to be inescapable and a reality that needs to be faced – with violence.

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Ford also focuses on the importance of strong role models, evident in the shape of Huw’s father Gwilym and particularly Mr. Gruffydd the pastor who, despite being an important figure in the village, will be sacrificed by the community to their bigotry and small-mindedness. Both are principled men, strong in their convictions and honorable in their intentions. Yet despite their great strength of character, both have serious flaws in terms of their trust of others and their naivety. Gwilym states that owners of the mine are not ‘savages’ and that they are ‘men like us’, initially blind to the exploitation and poor treatment of the miners. He, himself, will be treated badly by the management of the mine and the village community will turn on him as well, despite Gwilym ’s hand of friendship perennially extended to all. Mr Gruffyd will himself see the folly of his failings, even sharing them with Huw, whose eyes are filled with tears:

‘Huw, I thought when I was a young man that I would conquer the world with truth. I thought I would lead an army greater than Alexander ever dreamed of, not to conquer nations, but to liberate mankind. With truth. With the golden sound of the Word. But only a few of them heard. Only a few of you understood’.

Huw sees these flaws in both men, even as a boy, which heightens the tragedy and deepens the love that he holds for both men, in spite of their naivety. Yet there is also a harsh reality, which Hugh discovers as a boy, which is also part of the reality of life and a painful lesson in growing up –we lose those we love. Huw will see Mr. Gruffydd leave his village and see his father die in a mining disaster. As a child, Huw discovers the true cost of loss and thus his innocence will be lost as well.

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But not only does Huw have strong role models in the form of men. There are strong women as well, particularly in the form of his mother, Beth, delivered via a stirring performance by Sara Allgood (which would win her a Best Supporting Actress Nomination at the Oscars). She loves her husband but is not afraid to give him a piece of her mind and speaks with dignity and strength. At one of the turning points in the film, most of the men have turned on Gwilym for not supporting their strike, despite his own sons being involved with the miners’ union. One cold, blustery night as the strikers meet, Beth tells Huw to take her to the meeting, to which a shocked Huw responds that it’s no place for a woman. But Beth is unfettered and with firmness states that ‘there’s a place there for this woman!’ Her speech to the gathered men is fiercer than the snow storm howling around their heads, as she rains down scorn upon them:

‘You are a lot of cowards to go against him. He has done nothing against you and he never has and you know it well. How some of you, you smug-faced hypocrites, can sit in the same Chapel with him I cannot tell’.

But Beth Morgan is far from done:

‘There’s one thing more I’ve got to say and it is this. If harm comes to my Gwilym, I will find out the men and I will kill them with my two hands. And this I will swear by God Almighty’.

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It is doubtful that any man at that meeting would test Beth Morgan on her word. 

The power of love and the joy and pain it brings to one’s life spans Huw’s experience in the film. At first, the love of family is clear and uncompromised, with closeness between parents and their children and between the siblings. With each crises faced by the family, love ultimately holds them together and even when there are fractures in the family, the bonds of love also protect them. The family split during the workers’ dispute sees the sons initially defy their father and leave the house. But they will later return, not out of fear for their father but out of love for the family. Huw will recount the pain the family endures when the eldest brother is killed and three of his other brothers leave to seek their fortunes in America. Love has its’ price, which Huw will learn in the most difficult way.

As the film progresses, the experience of ‘first love’ arrives for Huw when he remembers falling for his eldest brother’s fiancée. Of course, this first love is one of innocence and impossibility but it foreshadows one of the greatest tragedies also examined, the terrible pain of love unrealized and the realities of life preventing true love from being founded. The mutual and deep love held between his sister Angharad and the pastor Mr Griffin, will see further turmoil for Huw’s family but most of all for the aforementioned two. As much as Mr. Gruffydd loves Antharrad, ne makes it clear that the reality for them would be poverty and economic difficulty, stating that he could not bear seeing her hair go grey before its’ time. In the end, she will marry the snobbish son of the mine-owner, which will mean economic stability but a cold and dead marriage, devoid of true love. Angharad becomes a prisoner in a gilded cage and Mr. Gruffydd is ‘not the same’. The family servant spreads gossip and rumor which will end in infecting the village ‘like the black slag’ from the mine spreading through the hearts and minds of the village folk. It will takes its’ toll on Huw’s family.

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But Mr. Gruffydd does not take this so easily and rains on the heads of the congregation his fury at their malicious gossip, their black hearts and hypocrisy. It is the final battle in his futile war against ignorance and as he points out, the desire to bring the ‘love of Jesus’ into the community and abandon their concept of faith as fear of God. It is this overcoming of adversity that permeates throughout the story as narrated by Huw. There are personal battles to be fought – the pastor bringing enlightenment and perspective to the village is but one of them. Huw must deal with his own obstacles and trials. Along with his mother, Hugh faces near death when both face illness and injury after falling into freezing water. His recovery is long and difficult, during which Mr Griffin raises his spirit and gives him hope, in spite of the dire prognosis from the doctor. Again, with Mr. Gruffydd’s help, Huw walks again despite his initial lack of faith. But Mr Gruffyd is also speaking to Huw’s spirit and faith, and offers lessons that will stay with Huw:

‘And as your father cleans his lamp to have good light, so keep clean your spirit, huh?…By prayer, Huw. And by prayer, I don’t mean shouting, mumbling, and wallowing like a hog in religious sentiment. Prayer is only another name for good, clean, direct thinking. When you pray, think. Think well what you’re saying. Make your thoughts into things that are solid. In that way, your prayer will have strength, and that strength will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit’.

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Mr. Gruffydd also encourages the men to form their trade union, against the will of the senior pastors of the church, and they stand up against the mine-owners. Theirs is a fight against exploitation and for their rights, which will cause not only division in the village but within Huw’s family. Yet it is this fight against adversity, which informs Huw on the need to fight against repression and certainly inspires his own aforementioned private battles.

The film may end in tragedy but again we are reminded that we hold true in our hearts and minds can truly die. The people in Huw’s life are always with him because of the love they have given him and he in return. Their lessons stay with him and guide him still as an adult; they give him, as Mr. Gruffydd teaches him, strength (that) will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit. At the beginning of the film, Huw shares a touching yet powerful sentiment, which rings true even as the final credits roll:

‘Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father, and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday’.

Some critics suggest the film sails dangerously close into over-sentimentality – but this is an unfair criticism. The pain of memory is addressed and central to the story and at times the reflection touches one of the themes of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ – “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” Huw’s memories are not completely romanticized and as the story unfolds, this becomes more than evident. True, we are all capable of evoking nostalgia of our own family and growing up and we do so regularly. However, in the deepest regions of our hearts, we know and can recall the vast array of moments and events that shape our own family story and how it has impacted on us. The stark and harsh realities of memory are evoked through the direction of John Ford and his eye is cast across the film’s narrative. 

‘How Green Was My Valley’ has powerful lessons not tied to a different era nor shaped purely by Hollywood’s studio system. The film’s power remains. much like the memory of love and family has for the adult Huw. The lessons transcend time and context. John Ford left us an artwork for us to not only learn from but emote with and touch us in a way that only classic films can. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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