For the last 70 odd years, Citizen Cane has dominated almost every ‘best of all time’ movie list. If not in the number one spot, it’s almost always very close. But back in 1941 when Orson Welles’ masterpiece came out, it wasn’t even considered the best movie of that year. That honor went to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley.
The mine threatens to cut their wages. The mine punishes them for unionizing. The mine kills a brother. Huw is crippled at one stage. His sister ends up in a loveless marriage. His sister is secretly in love with the local priest. Huw’s brothers regularly leave to seek their fortune in America. Kids at school beat him up. Kids in the mine beat him up. Basically, the world drops a big old steamer on Huw and his family roughly every four to six minutes.
But oh how they preserver. This is a story of family, loyalty, pride and good old Welsh fortitude. And because it was made in 1941 when subtly was a scarce commodity and film makers rarely thought to ad any sub to their text, How Green Was My Valley wears its themes proudly on its sleeve.
The Welshness of it was a bit of a shock. All I knew before watching it was that How Green Was My Valley was directed by John Ford. With John Wayne classics like The Searchers and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance on his resume, the name John Ford makes me automatically think of westerns. Even the title, How Green Was My Valley sounds like it could be a western.
The other thing about Ford’s involvement that surprised me as the movie went along, was its sentimentality and sweetness. Besides the above mentioned westerns, I think the only other movie I’ve seen of his is The Grapes of Wrath. And all of those have a definite streak of cynicism that I just never saw in How Green Was My Valley.
Is it better than Citizen Cane? I can’t see single reason why any sane person would ever say yes to that. But I can see why How Green Was My Valley was at least in contention that year. It’s a big, easily digestible, easily relatable melodrama about a likeable family who you want to see make it through the constant travails the world throws at them. Simple, but also effective.