In a Welsh mining town, the youngest son of the Morgan family recalls his youth, when the valley was turning from green and peaceful to troublesome for all the community. His father (Donald Crisp) and older brothers all work in the mines, despite the risks. Their pay is not handsome, but is plenty for the family. Soon the pay is cut and the sons talk about forming a union, an idea their father fiercely disapproves of. As workers strike and money becomes tight, the youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowall) has a close call falling through ice. He starts to regain his strength around spring time, partially thanks to the encouragement of Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), the new preacher. Mr. Gruffydd also visits the family’s daughter Angharad (Maureen O’Hara). Romantic tensions run high between them, but she does not act and Mr. Gruffydd doubts that he could properly provide for her.
Mr. Morgan sees more potential in Huw than to become another coal miner, so he starts sending Huw to a new school with upper class children. Immediately, Huw is the odd one out, the teacher mockingly calls him “a little genius from the coal pits.” The children are no less friendly and one boy beats poor Huw. When he returns back to the valley, it’s heartwarming to see a few men in the town take the time to teach Huw to box. The skill comes in handy and makes his classmates respect him, but only brings brutal punishment from the teacher. Soon, Huw starts to wonder if he should give up on school and simply work in the mines like everyone else.
The sense of community we see in this valley is very beautiful in the beginning. We are shown how the men sometimes start singing together as they walk home from a day working in the mines. To celebrate a wedding, it seems everyone is there, making a chain of hands and swaying as the happy couple exits the church. The reception shows how these people can really kick back and have a good time, I love the quick scene showing the men’s drinking games.
There are only two things that seem to disrupt his harmony: the mines and the church. When the mines cut wages, then jobs, and people begin to talk about unions, the impact starts pitting neighbors against each other. The church is little more than a social institution that instills fear in the valley. The deacons are not afraid to point out any wrong doing in front of the whole congregation, which makes some of the young people question the role of the church. Mr. Gruffydd is a positive addition to the church, but it takes a while for the people to realize his less judgemental character. Unfortunately, he is no match for that row of hypocritical deacons.
While How Green Was My Valley won the award for Best Picture, I cannot agree with the Academy. The film is a wonderful display of John Ford’s work and the story is a good depiction of trials similar to what many people were enduring and remembering just after the Depression, so it resonated more with many viewers at the time. Today however, it cannot compare to the wonderful achievements we uphold in Citizen Kane. I’ll get to that later.
“Nothing is enough for people who have minds like cesspools. Oh Huw, my little one, I hope when you’re grown their tongues will be slower to hurt.”