I wrote the following appreciation of one of my favorite films of all time, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, for Cine- File Chicago. It screens for free at the Northbrook Public Library twice on December 27.
John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (American Revival) Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook), Wednesday, December 27, 1 and 7:30pm (Free Admission)
One of the most prominent themes in John Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how that event is perceived after the fact. This theme is implicit in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), explicit in FORT APACHE (1948), and perfectly encapsulated in a famous line of dialogue from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE in 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, Ford’s ultimate past-tense movie, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, as he reminisces from the vantage point of 50 about his family life in turn-of-the-century Wales (with Huw’s adult voice-over narration being supplied by the director Irving Pichel). This means that Ford’s images are not mean to represent “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the visual storytelling also explains why this child protagonist, portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of cinema’s finest ever child performances, doesn’t seem to age even though the narrative spans many years. (Huw appears to be “too young” at the end of the movie in the same poignant way that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” in the flashback sequences of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.) Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is how, despite being an 11th-hour replacement for original director William Wyler, Ford still somehow managed to turn HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY into one of his most personal and beautifully realized films: it boasts amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of Arthur Miller, a stirring Alfred Newman score, and a star-making performance by Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). The project’s personal nature shines through in Ford’s melancholy depiction of the disintegration of one family in a mining town beset by union struggles and generational conflict. In so doing, Ford presents an ephemeral vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp’s patriarch can preside with tough-but-loving authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a transcendental illustration of his Catholic belief that “death is not the end” besides. Yet his obsessive focus on the inevitability of change also marks this as one of the director’s most pessimistic works: Huw may be leaving his hometown for good at the age of 50 when the film begins but it’s clear by the end that he hasn’t known this now-black valley to be “home” in the decades following childhood’s end. (1941, 118 min, DCP Digital) MGS