Tag Archives: Searching for John Ford: A Life

How Blu Was My Valley

Newly released on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox is How Green Was My Valley, the Best Picture Oscar winner from 1941 and one of director John Ford’s finest achievements.

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In the documentary Becoming John Ford, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs makes an interesting observation about John Ford’s 1945 film They Were Expendable: it is unusual, he says, that the title is in the past tense. This was, after all, a movie about World War II, made during World War II, and Dobbs believes that most other Hollywood filmmakers of the time would have wanted to conjure a more present-tense sense of urgency by calling such a movie either They Are Expendable or just plain The Expendables. (Needless to say, Dobbs’ observation was made, amusingly, several years before Sylvester Stallone’s action franchise ended up adopting the latter title.) Dobbs believes that by calling the film They Were Expendable Ford is saying these characters have already “passed into myth,” a good insight into Ford’s approach to history. One of the most prominent themes across Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how it is perceived after the fact. This is an implicit theme in Young Mr. Lincoln, an explicit theme in Fort Apache and is perfectly encapsulated in the famous line of dialogue from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Looking at Ford’s movie titles alone, it is striking how many of them are in the past tense: How the West Was Won, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, They Were Expendable, and, Ford’s ultimate “past tense” movie, How Green Was My Valley. Valley tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, but it is his story as seen from the vantage point of the character as he remembers that time at the age of 50. As in Miguel Gomes’ recent Tabu, this means that Ford’s images are not “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the storytelling also helps to explain why the child protagonist (portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of the finest child performances ever) doesn’t seem to age even though the film seems to span several years. This is similar to the poignant use of the superficially “too old” appearances of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in the flashback sequences of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, Ford’s last great “memory film.”

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Ford once claimed that How Green Was My Valley was his most autobiographical movie, which is ironic considering that he joined the project as a last-minute replacement for the original director William Wyler. Wyler had already worked on the script with screenwriter Philip Dunne, overseen the construction of the sets on the Fox ranch in the Malibu hills and even cast the film. Perhaps it’s surprising that the movie seems as “Fordian” as it does considering how late Ford came on board the project. Then again, perhaps it’s surprising that Ford was not offered to direct the project originally, given how similar the subject matter is to The Grapes of Wrath (which had netted Ford a Best Director Oscar one year earlier). Like Grapes, a film that had arrived with the same instant prestige – and controversy – as John Steinbeck’s source novel, How Green Was My Valley was based on a current best-seller by Richard Llewellyn. Both books had been published in 1939 (an indication of how much quicker things got done in Hollywood at the time) and they tell similar stories: they are period dramas depicting the disintegration of a family, set against the backdrop of a labor struggle. How Green Was My Valley is set in Wales and the main characters are coal miners (as opposed to the Okie tenant farmers in Grapes) but the portrait of family life in each is strikingly similar.

Daryl Zanuck, the head of Production at 20th Century Fox, was a conservative Republican and, as had happened with The Grapes of Wrath, was made uneasy by some of the political themes of How Green Was My Valley, such as the workers’ struggle for the right to unionize. Zanuck commissioned screenplays for the film from two different writers and rejected both of them because he thought they focused too much on the unionization subplot. In a memo referring to an early story conference, Zanuck wrote: “I was very disappointed in the (Ernest) Pascal script mainly because it has turned into a labor story and a sociological problem story instead of a great human warm story about real living people. I got the impression that we are trying to do an English Grapes of Wrath and prove that the mine owners were very mean and that the laborers finally won out over them. All this might be fine if it were happening today like The Grapes of Wrath but this is years ago and who gives a damn? The smart thing to do is to try and keep all of the rest in the background and focus mainly on the human story as seen through Huw’s eyes.” The third draft, written by Dunne, did downplay some of the more radical political elements of the novel but it is still remarkable that the movie got made at all.

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Part of the reason why Zanuck first approached Wyler and not Ford to direct is because his original concept for the film was different from what it ended up becoming. The initial idea was to make How Green Was My Valley Fox’s Gone with the Wind. Zanuck was jealous of MGM’s success with their 1939 Oscar-winner and his plan was for How Green Was My Valley to “outdo” Gone with the Wind by being a four-hour Technicolor epic, shot on location and featuring an all-star cast that would’ve include Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power and Greer Garson. None of those things ended up happening; war broke out in Europe, which made location shooting impossible, and the top brass at Fox balked at the proposed budget as well as the choice of director (Wyler had a reputation for being an extravagant perfectionist who required many takes). When Fox cancelled the project, Zanuck fired off an angry letter to the front office saying that Dunne’s script was the best he had ever read and if he couldn’t make the movie now, he was going to make it later and would take it to another studio if necessary. The powers that be at Fox relented on the condition that Zanuck make the film in black-and-white and bring it in at a running time of under two hours. That’s when Zanuck brought in Ford because Ford’s reputation was the opposite of Wyler’s – he was able to get most of his shots in only one or two takes and was known for bringing his movies in on time and under budget.

The finished film was, as I’ve indicated, highly personal for Ford, who based a lot of its images on his own childhood memories. Coincidentally, Ford had been the same age as Huw Morgan at roughly the same time in history: Ford was born in 1894 and reached adolescence in the early part of the 21st century just like Huw. Further, Huw is the youngest son in a large Welsh family and Ford was the youngest son in a large Irish-American family (his parents had migrated, separately, from Ireland to America, where they first met and got married). Ford said he could identify with being the “fresh young kid at the table” and this identification is evident in the many poignant reaction shots of Huw sitting with his family at the dining room table. More importantly, Huw becomes sick in the movie and has a lengthy convalescence during which he discovers his love of books. The exact same thing happened to the director; Ford contracted diptheria when he was 12 and was quarantined at home for a year. During this time he missed a year of school but discovered his own love of literature and read classics like Ivanhoe, Treasure Island and the novels of Mark Twain. Oftentimes, one of his sisters would read to him, an event that is recreated in the film with Huw and his sister-in-law Bronwyn (Anna Lee who, like cast-mate Maureen O’Hara, was working with Ford for the first of many times).

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Ultimately, what makes How Green Was My Valley a masterpiece, and arguably Ford’s finest pre-War film, is the deeply felt, deeply Fordian depiction of family and the lament for its inevitable dissolution. Ford sees the family itself as a microcosm of the broader Welsh society and, as the family goes, so too goes the mining town. The movie is ultimately a tragedy because the intellectually gifted Huw Morgan refuses to leave his hometown and pursue an education, preferring instead to stay behind and do the same backbreaking work in the mines as his father and brothers – even as the “green”-ness is leaving the valley for good. But if there is a silver lining to be found, it is in Ford’s sense of spirituality and the notion that, as Peter Bogdanovich put it, “death is not the end.” This spiritual sense is depicted nowhere more strongly nor movingly in Ford’s entire canon than in Valley‘s climactic moments: after Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) has died in a mining accident, his mother (Sara Allgood) speaks of seeing him in a vision: “He came to me just now . . . He spoke to me and told me of the glory he had seen.” We then see all of the film’s characters, dead and alive, together on a grassy hillside, happy and smiling, as if reunited in paradise. “Men like my father cannot die,” Huw intones in voice-over as an adult. “They are with me still, real in memory as they were in the flesh, loving and beloved forever.”

After The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley was another big critical and commercial success for 20th Century Fox. It won Ford his third Academy Award for Best Director and it won Zanuck his first Oscar for Best Picture. The fact that its main competition that year was Citizen Kane (which had to settle for the Best Original Screenplay trophy only) has sadly caused some critics and cinephiles to downgrade Valley in hindsight, many of whom see it as the ultimate “proof” of the Oscars’ irrelevance–the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. I mean, the film that beat the Greatest Movie of All Time™? How good could it possibly be? Personally, while I yield to no one in my love of Welles, I have no qualms about saying that the Academy Awards actually got things right that year. The ultimate tribute to Valley came from Welles himself, who clearly modeled the gossiping housewives in his 1942 production of The Magnificent Ambersons on a scene involving similar characters from Ford’s film (not to mention identifying Ford as his favorite director in later interviews).

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About the transfer: How Green Was My Valley is presented by Fox on Blu-ray in a new HD transfer based on restored film elements. I do not believe this involved the same sort of extensive digital overhaul as last year’s brilliant Grapes of Wrath Blu-ray, which means the upgrade over Fox’s previous DVD version is not comparably dramatic. It is, however, still an upgrade — especially in the areas of detail, clarity and contrast. The amount of detail in close-ups in particular, such as the fine hairs on an old woman’s face, is extremely impressive. Arthur Miller’s gorgeous high-contrast/deep-focus black-and-white cinematography is comparable to Gregg Toland’s work on Grapes and likewise utilizes a lot of low-angled long shots; the film’s cinematic qualities come through better than ever on this new edition. Fortunately, all of the DVD’s welcome extras (especially the insightful commentary track with Anna Lee and Ford biographer Joseph McBride) have also been ported over here intact. How Green Was My Valley is one of my top three favorite Ford films, along with The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and I consider it an essential addition to the library of any Fordophile — or cinephile.

    Works Cited

1. McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.


Blu Grapes

Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexico mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico.

And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.

– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

In addition to the obvious musical delight that Steinbeck takes in the sound of the place names listed in the quote above, the fact that he names so damn many of them serves another purpose, which is to give the reader a sense of how epic the journey is that the characters in the novel have undertaken. The names of those places trace the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to the supposed promise land (thank God, at last) of California. The sheer number of those place names and the fact that they’re all connected by Highway 66 gives the reader a sense of what life was like on the road in the 1930s (twenty years before Jack Kerouac). It is pure Americana, pure Steinbeck and, when that prose is translated into images, it is also pure John Ford.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in the spring of 1939. Shortly thereafter, Daryl Zanuck, Vice President in Charge of Production at Twentieth Century Fox, bought the rights and, incredibly, production of the film wrapped in November of that same year, about six months after the novel was published. (Needless to say, things got done a little quicker in Hollywood back in those days.) It was a courageous decision for Zanuck to produce Grapes; the novel was instantly controversial upon publication. It was banned and burned in various places around the United States and this controversy carried over to the film’s production: the California Chamber of Commerce and the Agricultural Council of California called for a boycott of all Fox films upon hearing that Zanuck was making an adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel. When Zanuck sent a second unit director on the road to shoot semi-documentary footage of the Joad’s jalopy out on the highway, they used a dummy title, Highway 66, so that no one would know what they were really shooting.

Another potential obstacle for Zanuck was Chase National Bank, which was the primary stockholder of Twentieth Century Fox. This is because The Grapes of Wrath took an explicitly pro-labor, anti-capital stance. If there are villains in The Grapes of Wrath, they are the banking interests who are responsible for kicking the farmers off their land, which is what sets the plot in motion. That these bankers are faceless and unseen is part of the point Steinbeck (and, in the movie version, John Ford) are trying to make about capital. There’s a powerful scene early in the film where a poor farmer, Muley Graves (John Qualen), confronts a bank representative who tells him that his farm will be reposessed. The bank employee points out that he’s just doing what he’s been ordered to do and that he’s being paid by someone hundreds of miles away. “Then who do we shoot?,” Muley asks in frustration.

Many of the top brass at Twentieth Century Fox didn’t think these sort of sentiments were going to fly with Winthrop Aldrich, the President of Chase National. Shortly after purchasing the rights to the book, Zanuck had a meeting with Aldrich about an unrelated matter and, out of the blue, Aldrich said, “I hear you’ve bought the rights to The Grapes of Wrath. My wife just finished reading it and she’s crazy about it. I can’t wait to see what kind of movie it’s going to be.” But Zanuck was feeling pressure from all sides; it wasn’t until after Steinbeck had sold the movie rights that he found out about the studio’s ties to Chase National. The novelist then set up a meeting with the mogul and told him, “If I had known your studio was controlled by a large bank, I would’ve never sold you the rights.” Steinbeck also said he was afraid that Zanuck was going to remove the “social significance” from the story. Zanuck assured Steinbeck that would not be the case and that we was willing to take any “legitimate or justified gamble” with the material. After Steinbeck saw the finished film at a private screening in December of 1939, he wrote his agent, “Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches are pulled. In fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true.”

When it came time for Zanuck to assign a director to the film, John Ford was the most logical choice. Ford was a proven critical and commercial force in Hollywood at that time, having recently won an Oscar for Best Director for The Informer and having directed a series of hits for Fox, including the terrific Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie. More importantly, Zanuck knew Ford had an affinity for the material. Zanuck himself was a conservative Republican, which makes his decision to produce the movie all the more remarkable. Zanuck, however, was also smart and fair and he didn’t have a problem producing films that espoused beliefs that were opposed to his own. Zanuck actually hired a detective agency to investigate the labor camps in California like the ones portrayed in the book to see if the conditions were as bad as what Steinbeck had claimed. The agency reported back to Zanuck that the conditions were actually worse than what was in the novel. Zanuck then gave Ford free reign to make the film as brutally realistic as he could.

At this stage of his career, Ford’s politics were unambiguously liberal. (After the war they would become a complicated mixture of liberal and conservative but in 1937 Ford had described himself as “a definite Socialist Democrat, always left.”) Ford supported liberal causes throughout the 1930s, such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and had sent money to anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War and to charities that supported displaced migrant farmers like the Joads. He was also one of the founding members of the Screen Director’s Guild, a union that was initially extremely unpopular with studio executives. Zanuck was willing to overlook his disagreements with Ford because he knew that Ford was the best person for the job. For his part, Ford was excited to receive the assignment. He later said that he “bucked to do it” and that he put everything he had into it. How seriously Ford took the project can be ascertained by his approach to the visual style; Ford hired the best cinematographer in Hollywood, Gregg Toland, to shoot the film. What Steinbeck referred to as the “documentary” feel of the movie was a conscious strategy employed by Ford and Toland. This semi-documentary style is a perfect visual correlative for Steinbeck’s semi-journalistic prose (the novel had its origins in a series of newspaper articles that the author had written about labor camps in the mid-1930s). In particular, Ford and Toland intended to reproduce the style of Depression-era photographers like Dorothea Lange and government-produced documentary films like The Plow That Broke the Plains.

This documentary influence is most notable in the sequence where the Joads first arrive at the first labor camp in California. In one of the greatest shots that Ford ever composed (which is saying a lot), he shows a harrowing scene from the Joads’ point-of-view as their jalopy enters the camp. In the background of the frame, one can see the primitive shacks where the workers are living in total squalor while, in the foreground, the workers slowly drift across the frame, staring directly into the camera with almost accusatory looks on their hard, unforgettable faces. It is one of the most haunting, powerful and mysterious shots of any Hollywood movie of the era. I’m happy to report that these are qualities that come thrillingly alive like never before on Fox’s new Blu-ray of the film, the best it has ever looked on home video. This is not merely a straightforward high-definition rendering of existing source materials (like Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray of Fort Apache from earlier this year) but a high-definition transfer of a full-on digital remastering of the movie. The Grapes of Wrath is a very dark film and this transfer boasts the impressive richness of film-like black levels while also showing an incredible level of detail: every wrinkle on every characters’ face seems visible, which really brings out the film’s documentary side.

In addition to the visual style, the other most noteworthy aspect of The Grapes of Wrath is Henry Fonda’s lead performance as Tom Joad, the role that the actor was born to play. Fonda’s persona was one that embodied honesty, fairness and liberal idealism, qualities that made him one of the biggest stars of the New Deal era (and qualities that Sergio Leone intentionally and cleverly subverted by casting Fonda as a sadistic and pro-capital villain in Once Upon a Time in the West nearly thirty years later). The scenes where Tom Joad serenades his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” and, later, gives the famous “I’ll be there” monologue are unforgettable mainly because of what Fonda brings to the table. Not only is it impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing this role, I am incapable of reading the novel without hearing in my mind the flat, midwestern accent and distinctive cadences of Fonda’s speech in every one of Tom Joad’s lines. Speaking of which, that accent comes through loud and clear in Fox’s DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. While most mono soundtracks from Hollywood’s golden age sound understandably limited on a surround sound set-up, the audio on this Blu-ray might be superior to any other transfers I’ve ever heard of movies from this era. This is perhaps because the original mono soundtrack itself is brilliant, offering surprising depth and complexity in the mix of the distinctive speaking voices of Ford’s stock company (Jane Darwell, Charley Grapewin, John Carradine, et al), sound effects like wind rustling through leaves and birds tweeting, and, of course, the mournful, indelible strains of Danny Borzage’s accordion.

The bottom line: The Grapes of Wrath is an American masterpiece and one of the best films John Ford made before his post-war mature period. The Fox Blu-ray, which exceeded my expectations, is worthy of the movie and will certainly figure prominently in my end-of-the-year “Best Home Video Releases” list.

Works Cited

1. McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.


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