How Green Was My Valley is a 1941 John Ford film about life in a Welsh mining town. It was adapted from the 1939 book of the same title written by Richard Llewllyn. The original intent was to shoot on location in Whales, but there was this thing happening in Europe at the time called Work War II. You might have heard of it. Instead of Whales, John Ford had Fox Studio build an 80 acre replica of a Welsh mining town.
Compositionally there are some stunning shots in the movie and it is worth a look sometime. Any film, shot on location or in the studio, is an interpretation of reality. On location, shot selection is to some degree, always going to be influenced by existing architecture or obstructions. The location might be “perfect” for the film but the crew will always have some issue to work around. The cinematographer has so much more control anytime a film can build to suit the story rather than the film fitting a found location.
The specifics of the work of cinematographer Arthur Charles Miller are not what I am writing about today. Nor did I wish to write about the film beating out Citizen Kane for best cinematography, best art direction, best director and best picture.
I wanted to discuss one of the many moments that make up the story. The whole thing is narrated from the view of an adult Huw, the youngest of six children born to Gwilym and Beth Morgan. Young Huw was played by a very young Roddy McDowall who you might know from any of the 269 projects he acted in or from just one; as I am not writing to discuss his portrayal of Cornelius in the original Planet of the Apes. It is apparent that there are so many things to write about this film that I am not writing about.
Instead, I am writing to discuss Huw’s first day of school in How Green Was My Valley. The clip that follows comes in the second half of the film. Huw is the first of the family to go off to school. The first to have a chance for an education and a life outside of a coal mine. He is given the gift of a nice new pencil box by his family and sent off to school. Think about the sequence that follows, the economy of word and image used to paint our villains; how quickly one villain is redeemed in our eyes; how satisfying the comeuppance of the other.
Also, think on what the film is saying about honor, integrity, respect and responsibility. If you know other Ford works then you have some familiarity with these themes.
Finally, a few stills from that purely artificial Welsh village that is now a golf course in California.