Now, here’s a thing. I was convinced that I must have already written one of these pieces about a John Ford film – Ford, the great lyrical poet of American cinema (if you will forgive me being a bit fanciful)! I could make a top ten all-time favourites list out of John Ford films. Great westerns like Stagecoach, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to name but two. But more than that, with great historical tales such as Young Mr Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk.
Ford’s films often returned to the same themes – sacrifice, family, community, the conflict between nature and progress. These are most strongly seen in two films he made in the early forties -The Grapes of Wrath and How Green was my Valley – both based upon best-selling books and both winning best director Oscars.
Set in a Welsh mining village in the 1890’s (actually a studio set) How Green was My Valley tells the story of the Morgan family through they eyes of the youngest member, Huw, looking back 50 years later. The story is full of joy, conflict, tragedy and disaster. In it we see a family and a community of strong loyalties torn between conservatism and progressivism, prosperity and poverty, dignity and humiliation. Nostalgia for lost people, places and a way of life is the key sentiment.
The Morgan family is a large one, parents Gwilym and Beth, six sons and one daughter. Huw is a schoolboy but his brothers are all grown up and work in the pit, like their father and virtually every other man in the village. Their house seems oddly large and somewhat grand, but it does accommodate eight adults, including six wage-earners.
The pit stands at the head of the valley, dominating the community and everyone in it (The title of the story refers to the valley before the despoilation of the pit and the slagheaps that came with it. A lost paradise is also a Ford theme).
The Chapel is a key component of this community and the new preacher is the ex-miner now university-educated Mr Gruffydd (pronounced Griffiths to the uninitiated). It is a place of strength and worship for the community, but also one of harshness and condemnation (a key scene shows an un-married mother being ‘cast out into the outer darkness till you have learned your lesson’). There are interesting similarities between the chapel and the newly formed Union – both made up of ordinary people, both a source of strength but both capable of cruelty and hypocrisy.
Disaster takes the form of accidents at the pit, wage reductions and a strike and Huw losing the power to walk (temporarily) after falling in a freezing pond. Tragedy takes the form of family disintegration (older brothers leaving for America) and the love between Mr Gruffydd and Huw’s sister Angharad. He refuses her love because he cannot bear to see her marry him and live a life of poverty. Instead he encourages her to marry the mine owner’s son, which she does with predictable consequences. When she returns alone from a trip away, divorce is the word on scandalised lips and Mr Gruffydd is driven out of the chapel because it is known that she loves him.
The final tragedy comes when Huw’s father is killed in another accident at the pit. The is an arresting image of the lift cage ascending with Huw sat cradling his father’s head with Mr Gruffydd standing over them, arms spread wide in a clear evocation of Christ on the cross. How Green was My Valley is a film suffused with religion – people are ‘God-fearing’ and the Chapel is as much the focus of social life in the valley as the pit is of the economic life. Religious conservatism, as so often, is equated with intolerance and (sorry to repeat it), hypocrisy. Mr Gruffydd’s underlying liberalism is seen as superior and preferable and he himself is seen as a Christ-like figure. The message here for us is to never let self-righteousness drive out love and compassion.