John Ford won four awards for directing, more than any other director in the history of the Oscars, but ‘How Green Was My Valley’ was the only one to also scoop the best picture award. It is easily the most famous film ever made to be set in Wales, and is also regarded as was of the least deserving Best Picture wins as it saw off competition from ‘Citizen Kane’ a film often regarded as the best film ever made.
It is a film told in flashback by Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) about his childhood in rural Wales at the turn of the last Century. The film looks at the changes in religion, economics and values over his childhood, especially at how the family struggle with the introduction of industry into the area. Maureen O’Hara plays the part of his sister with Walter Pidgeon as her love interest and the local minister.
The film is nothing if not charming. We see all the members of the family change over a period of years, and Ford manages to make us interested in the family. As a viewer we become involved with the characters from the beginning and this is one of the biggest successes of the film. Unfortunately whereas we are made to care about the family, due to the size and scale of the family, and the limitations of the film, some individual members of the family get lost.
Along with the story, the cinematography and music make this film memorable. We see beautiful camerawork, from sweeping scenes of rural Wales to more intimate scenes, and each one looks as if it was made with care: this is not a brash film but one that the makers clearly cared about. The scenes are backed with the tones of welsh male voice choirs. This, again, adds intimacy to the film, and makes it easy to like.
The acting is not the most memorable that I have seen in a Best Picture winner. This is largely because all roles are essentially supporting. Yes, it’s Huw Morgan telling the story, but he is not telling his story, rather the story of the family. O’Hara is pretty to watch, and competent, but it’s not a groundbreaking performance, and I’ve seen Pidgeon in more interesting roles.
‘How Green Was My Valley’ is essentially a heart-warming film about a bygone era, and yet despite its sentimentality, it never feels nauseating. This is largely due to fact that the characters are hardened and tackle anything that is thrown at them with a sense of determination, rather than wallowing in self-pity, and this allows the storyline to develop without getting trapped by the various misfortunes bestowed upon the family. It is a film that should be watched for its merits. It’s not ‘Citizen Kane’, but it is a very respectable and expertly directed piece of classic cinema and for that it should be acknowledged.