Producer Darryl F. Zanuck conceived his adaptation of How Green was My Valley as a four hour epic answer to David O. Selznick’s 1939’s success Gone with the Wind. The Second World War intervened, however, and the film’s production moved from Wales to California, the length was trimmed from four hours to two (cutting the adult years of lead character Huw Morgan (who was to be played by Tyrone Power (Nightmare Alley) and director William Wyler (Roman Holiday) was replaced by John Ford (Stagecoach). For a viewer unfamiliar with the novel the film is based on, it’s difficult to judge if the story would have been suitably epic, but the change from color to black and white necessitated by the move of shooting locations really helps the film, which is beautiful in black and white (cinematographer Arthur C. Miller won an Oscar for his work). Epic or not, the film was critically successful winning Best Picture in addition to the Oscar for cinematography, Donald Crisp (Broken Blossoms) won a Supporting Actor Oscar, and John Ford won Best Director and Nathan Juran (who would later go on to direct special effects driven B-movies like Attack of the 50ft Woman) among others winning an Art Direction award. Sara Allgood (1941’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was up for one of the five Oscars the film did not win, and the film was financially successful as well, grossing six million off of a 1.25 million budget.
The film is narrated by an adult Huw Morgan (Irving Pichel, Dracula’s Daughter), who recalls his youth in a small Welsh mining town as he prepares to finally leave it. Huw (Roddy McDowall, Laserblast) is the youngest in a large family of respected and prosperous coal miners, and he idolizes his father (Crisp) and older brothers, while his mother (Allgood) is the heart of the family. Ivor (Patrick Knowles, who also appeared in 1941’s The Wolf Man) marries Browyn (Anna Lee, Bedlam), who Huw considers his first love. Huw’s beautiful sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara, Only the Lonely) and the idealistic new preacher Mr. Gruffyd (Walter Pidgeon, The Forbidden Planet) have eyes for one another.
Life in the valley is happy so long as the coal mine is doing well, but when times become tougher-and displaced iron workers begin seeking work in the mine-things in the valley begin to change. The inhabitants of the valley, desperate for work, begin to talk about unionization, dividing even Huw’s family. As Huw grows up and goes to school, one by one his siblings leave for greener pastures, driven away by economic pressures-and social ones, including the vicious and hypocritical deacons at the church.
It is interesting to compare How Green was My Valley with John Ford’s other ode to village life (albeit in his own ancestors’ Ireland), The Quiet Man. The two films share a fair amount of overlap in terms of cast and crew, and both are set in small villages in the British Isles, recalling days gone by, but that is where the similarities end. How Green was My Valley, unlike it’s more popular younger sibling, is an ensemble piece, and is well cast, with Crisp and Allgood giving wonderful turns as Huw’s parents. The story is more akin to Ford’s populist Grapes of Wrath than it is to the almost fairy tale Quiet Man, with its noble family beset by economic troubles and the characters behave more like real people, albeit highly idealized ones. This is not a happy story where everything works out to a happy ending. The performances are better, and the film is beautiful to look at. How Green was My Valley does suffer, somewhat, from a lack of big stars and moments of Fordian sentiment, but it is an engaging drama and well worth watching.