How Green Was My Valley (review)

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We Work the Black Seam

With heartbreaking clarity and honesty, 50-year-old Huw (pronounced Hugh) Morgan looks back at his childhood in a Welsh valley, describing in simple terms his witnessing of the loss of a way of life. How Green Was My Valley, directed by John Ford, is his story.

As the film opens, coal mining is new to young Huw’s (Roddy McDowell, about 10 years old and so cute) valley — slag and belching smokestacks have not yet marred the beautiful countryside. Huw’s father and older brothers are miners, and Huw is in awe of them. But as the outside world, with its cold industry and sharp class differences, intrudes more and more upon this peaceful valley, it slowly tears the Morgan family apart. The prospect of unionization divides Pa Morgan (Donald Crisp) and his miner sons. Two brothers head off to America in search of jobs when cutbacks hit the mine. A mining accident leaves another brother’s wife widowed. The new preacher from the university at Cardiff, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), woos Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), igniting gossip among the townsfolk — she’s married to the rich son of the mine owner. Huw becomes the first in his family to attend a national school, where he is berated by the teacher as a “dirty little sweep” from the “coal pits.”

Valley is parable as well as family history. The coming of dehumanizing technology to a sleepy little village is analogous to the knowledge we gain about the world as we grow from oblivious childhood to realistic adulthood. When we remove our rose-colored glasses, our community that felt tight-knit and comfortable in childhood can seem transformed into a scrabbling bunch of little people with little minds, intolerant, indifferent, and sometimes violent. It isn’t just coal and industry that made Huw’s valley less green — it’s also maturity and the loss of innocence that comes with growing up.

Moving and touching, How Green Was My Valley is a classic coming-of-age story.

[reader comments on this review]

Oscars Outstanding Motion Picture 1941
unforgettable movie moment:
Miners marching along cottage-lined streets, coming home from the day’s work at the mine, singing joyfully — their world had not yet been destroyed.

previous Best Picture:
1940: Rebecca
next Best Picture:
1942: Mrs. Miniver

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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