Many remember The King’s Speech not as a respectable, well-crafted film, but as the stodgy period drama that beat the more modern and impressive The Social Network for Best Picture. So it often goes that a film wining the ever-coveted Academy Award actually lends it a tarnished legacy rather than a bolstered one. Perhaps the most tragic example of this is John Ford’s lovely How Green Was My Valley.
This moving portrait of a small Welsh coal mining community had the unfortunate timing of being released the same year as Citizen Kane, and at that year’s Academy ceremony, many viewed its win as stealing the top prize from Orson Welles’ directorial debut.
Overly focusing on awards devalues the art itself, and so as time goes on, we forget or just don’t bother to learn what a gorgeous film Ford crafted out of Richard Llewellyn’s novel. It tells the story of the Morgan family, and the struggles they and their community have as their way of life is threatened by the coal industry’s decline.
The book runs well over six hundred pages, and the most apparent flaw of the film is how much screenwriter Philip Dunne condensed the story. Ford’s film takes on a very episodic nature, and though Dunne manages to give just enough time to the major subplots, one can imagine a three-hour version of the film that better serves them all, or even a shorter version that delves into a single one. The relationship between Angharad Morgan (Maureen O’Hara) and a new preacher (Walter Pidgeon) is by far the most compelling part of the film, served well in its few scenes, but also deserving of more time. An entirely separate film could dive into the politics at play, focusing on the generational clash over unionizing within the Morgan family.
Still, Ford and Dunne aren’t after just one story—they’re giving us a broader look at the varying types of people populating this small town. Along with the two aforementioned characters, there’s the young boy who narrates the film (Roddy McDowall), his parents (Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood), the cruel deacon (Arthur Shields), among many others. Though the cast is excellent all around, the real star of the film is the eighty-acre set constructed for the film in the Santa Monica Mountains, and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller’s exquisite shooting of it. The previous year, Ford made two films with Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland; it seems he and Miller decided to stick with the deep-focus look Toland helped popularize.
It’s sad when a film like this, flawed as it may be, becomes so associated with something superficial like awards or the box office that its actual artistic qualities vanish from discussion. If the Oscar bait movies we rail against today had even an ounce of the care put into How Green My Valley, then maybe that term would become a compliment, not an insult.