Thursday, February 2, 2012

"How Green Was My Valley" with Maureen O'Hara, Roddy McDowall and Donald Crisp

One of the most remarkable things about this film is that it was filmed in California. Unlike John Ford's later classic, "The Quiet Man", which would be filmed on location in Ireland, this one was filmed in America due to the Second World War, which had already begun in Europe, making it almost impossible to ship the actors, equipment and technicians safely to Wales. But, with John Ford directing, magic could be created anywhere.

This is the story of a Welsh coal mining family, living outside of Cardiff at the turn of the century. The Morgan's were a coal mining family; they always had been; and it was expected that they always would be. They lived in an idyllic town with all the things that were necessary to live a decent, if not hard, life. Mr. Morgan, played by Donald Crisp, and his wife, Sara, played by Sara Allgood, have 4 sons. The youngest, Huw, is played by Roddy McDowall, whose character also serves as the narrator, looking back on his time as a child in the valley. The Morgan's also have a daughter, Angharad, played by Maureen O'Hara.

The paradise of Huw's youth is interrupted when men from another town, who are out of work, come to Huw's village looking for jobs. Taking advantage of the glut in labor on the market, the owners of the mine choose to reduce wages, prompting the men of the town to form a Union and go on strike. The elder Mr. Morgan is aghast at the prospect and even outraged when his own sons decide to take part in that effort.

When Mr. Morgan is threatened over this issue, by the very men he has worked alongside for so many years, his wife, Sara, who has learned of a secret Union meeting that night, gets Huw to take her to the place where the meeting is being held. It is winter, and a snowstorm rages as Mrs. Morgan lambasts the men as cowardly in their actions towards her husband. After venting her rage at the men she leaves, with Huw, in the midst of the storm.

As the men, who are now somewhat ashamed of themselves, make their way back to their homes, they hear a cry for help. Mrs. Morgan has fallen into the stream, with Huw holding her head above the freezing waters. The men save her, and Huw, returning them to their home. It is months before the two recover from the events of that night, with Huw having to learn to walk again.

In the middle of all of this there is also the story of the Preacher, played with acidic cruelty by Arthur Shields, one of the finest actors to ever grace the stage or screen. He is a fire and brimstone preacher, who shows his true colors when he attempts to cast out a girl from the village who is unwed and pregnant. Only the brave protestations of Mrs. Morgan and Angharad save her from being exiled for the crime of being human and falling short of "God's glory."

While the Preacher is a vengeful man, his assistant, Mr. Gruffydd, played with great sensitivity by Walter Pidgeon, is just the opposite. He is kind and understanding. He is the one who helps Huw learn to walk again after that freezing night in the stream. He brings Huw all of the classics to read, things like "Treasure Island", which transport the boy beyond his limited world and sufferings. When Huw has recovered he is able to gain entrance to a Public School, opening the way for him to go beyond the coal mines to make a living. But the boy will have none of it, instead choosing to work beside his father and brothers in the mines.

When Angharad falls in love with Mr. Gruffydd, he gently lets her down, explaining that he has given his life to God. This sets the stage for her to marry the mine owner's son, which should give her happiness, but does not fill the hole she carries in her heart for her true love.

When the price of coal drops and the mines reduce wages again, 2 of the sons leave for America, breaking their mother's heart. The movie largely resembles some of my family's own background. They were Welsh, living just outside of Cardiff, at about the same time this story takes place. Perhaps that is why this movie strikes such a chord with me.

The film is filled with the imagery and hard work which was the way of life in Wales back then. Director John Ford, using wide sweeping panoramas, as well as tight close-ups, conveys all the joy, and hardships, of an era that tested the hearts and souls of all who struggled through those times. With the added attraction of the Welsh Singers, who play themselves, along with the antics of Barry Fitzgerald as the town "sportsman", Cyfartha, this film garnered 5 Academy Awards, and 5 additional nominations. From start to finish, this is a movie that will resonate with the viewer forever.

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