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Out of the Past

Thoughts on a film: How Green Was My Valley (1940)

Beginning with the title: How Green Was My Valley. No question mark is necessary; this is a statement as opposed to a enquiry. In any case, we'll never know how green the valley actually was, since the black and white photography denies us such privilege. However, in the heart and mind of this central character, looking back, as the characters in Ford's films often do, the memory of this place and the picture that is captured, photograph-like, in the memory and imagination, is powerful enough to make the significance of the phrasing an important device in communicating what the film is essentially about.  Not just important to the character's own attempts to recall something that no longer exists, in any actual, physical reality, but to the viewing audience and their attempts to find interest and identification in this most personal of personal tales.

This is a title that establishes, up-front and before the film has even begun, a connection between the 'author' - as in, the character bringing these people to life - and the audience. On paper, this is a title that reads like a grandfather handing down old tales to a child; or perhaps even words of wisdom between a father and his son; something similar to the relationship between the young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) and his own father, Mr. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp), as seen in the film itself. A kind of, "How green was my valley? Well son, let me tell you..." sort of thing.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

The specific on-screen phrasing of this title seems to emphasise the notion of the personal through the possessive; where the sense of an autobiographical story (or a fictionalised-autobiographical story, as would eventually be revealed) is suggested by the nuances of how the title reads, or indeed, could be spoken. A perfect example of this statement as opposed to enquiry approach can be found in the film's opening monologue, which introduces not only the theme of personal reflection - as the character looks back to a story that is recreated for our benefit - but the usual Fordian interest in the power of memory to transform moments of the mundane, or the everyday, into images of unforgettable spectacle.


"I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory. Memory? Who shall say what is real and what is not?  Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the Earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful. Everything I ever learned as a small boy came from my father and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday. In those days, the black slag, the waste of the coal pits, had only begun to cover the sides of our hill. Not yet enough to mar the countryside, nor blacken the beauty of our village, for the colliery had only begun to poke its skinny black fingers through the green."


The images that Ford uses to accompany this narration - which reads like poetry on the page but is near-transcendent when spoken in the film by an unseen Irving Pichel - capture what might have been the reality for these people; but a reality, like everything in the film, defined by the memories of an old man looking back to the days of his youth. The fact that this dialogue, spoken in an attempt to bring dead objects back to life, is narrated by a man perhaps close to death himself, gives these bold, near-defiant images of ordinary people turned into icons of human endurance by the incredible way in which Ford frames them, an even greater emotional weight. Just as the images, in turn, make the dialogue resonate on a far deeper and emotional level by foregrounding it through the associations and juxtapositions of image and text.

The relationship here, between the opening text and the opening images, suggest a greater depth by deliberately playing on the audience's own recollections of what 'home', as something that we return to, subconsciously, throughout our adult lives, actually means. We can grasp, immediately, the significance of this place, exaggerated in the mind as well as on the screen, by the way in which Ford, and his cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, present it to us. These rich, painterly compositions that recall impressionist landscapes of charcoal on paper nonetheless have a touch of the documentary about them. There is a direct, iconographic truth to these images that goes beyond the edges of the frame or the limitations of the Hollywood soundstage; they capture something incredibly real, emotionally at least, that plays into the thoughts and feelings of a viewing audience who can see the enormous power of this place and its people, not as any real location or a work of actuality, but as a universal symbol for something that will one day disappear, or be replaced, but can exist long in the hearts and minds of those who once embraced it.

The notion of a dying world, or a world that no longer exists in any actual, tangible form, is suggested in this opening montage by two shots of elderly ladies. One in full-face close-up, showing the great lines of age and wisdom marked upon her skin; the other, bent-backed and shrivelled, standing frail and small in the shadow of a doorway. These women, like the world of the film, have struggled and endured, but have reached the end of something. Eventually, they too will one day cease to exist, but will live on in the thoughts and feelings of those who once loved and cared for them. As figures in the frame they are as-important as the landscapes that Ford takes great care in presenting as something beyond words. They are assimilated into the frame, as part of this rich, imaginary kingdom, to the point where one could not exist without the other.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

Such images suggest the notions of time and the passing-down of traditions, customs, social norms and stories between the generations. These shots of frail old women immediately suggest, on a subconscious level, the potential future manifestations of the once young and beautiful sisters-in-law Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) and Bronwyn (Anna Lee). Two characters inevitably worn down by toil and heartache; still waiting in the front doorway for their men, denied them, either through death or circumstance. This old woman might even be the same woman who once stood, aghast, back-to-the-door, with the same stunned rigidity of Ford's film-camera, when the mine exploded; never moving; still looking out onto the chaos and confusion as if trying to make sense of it all.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]: 

However we choose to see these figures - either as icons or actual fictional characters - it is clear that Ford is introducing these old-faces in an attempt to reinforce the personification of the valley itself. As Pichel, channelling the voice of a now aged Huw Morgan, discusses the desecration of the land's natural beauty by the industrial progression of time, Ford cuts to these two figures in order to contrast the physiognomy of the human face with the physiognomy of the landscape. An audience may not necessarily appreciate the true overwhelming power that the memory of this valley has to the central character, or how significant its destruction is to his own personal identity, but an aged face, marked and transformed by the ravages of time, is immediately relatable. As we watch our own parents, friends, partners and eventually ourselves grow old, we recognise this brutality of age and deterioration, and recognise how each single moment of a life is fleeting.

The presentation of this world is central to what makes the film so remarkable, with Ford going to great lengths to document the social rituals and practices that define this world, its people, and the story taking place.

How Green Was My Valley [John Ford, 1941]:

Without question, How Green Was My Valley remains one of the supremefilms, and one that I wish I could dedicate another thousand words to, having barely scratched the surface of what makes the film so remarkable, so moving, so endlessly relevant, in the half-finished thoughts above. It's of course a film about communities; about people, their relationships, their lives and loves. A film full of life, with its various joys and sorrows, and one that manages to celebrate life; or more specifically, the humble, everyday lives that contributed to these communities - to our histories! - though are rarely documented or immortalised in works of stone, paint or ink.

Whether or not Ford was using the Wales of this story as a surrogate for his beloved Ireland is probably debatable, but what the filmmaker achieves here is something more beautiful, more nuanced and more authentic in its emotion than even his own later and more specifically Irish work, The Quiet Man (1952). While that film works to present the minutiae of the Irish experience, or a reflection of it, in such broad detail that it often slips into pure caricature, the presentation of the characters and place of How Green Was My Valley has a more sensitive yearning to it. A solemnity that evokes the feeling of what it is to be connected to a place (even in memory), but unable to go back. It's a humanist film that takes Ford away from the macho westerns and cavalry films, for which many associate him with, and places him within the same tradition and lineage of Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Terence Davies, Naomi Kawase, Laila Pakalniņa, Pedro Costa and Hong Sang-soo (among others).

While much of its reputation today rests on the trivial fact that How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane (1941) to that year's Academy Award, I have to admit, I find Ford's film every bit the equal to Kane, if not actually greater. It's a film that ranks alongside Ford's other great masterpieces, such as the similarly humanist and strikingly poetic The Informer (1937), Young Mr Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Long Voyage Home (also 1940), My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and remains, for me at least, among the very greatest works of twentieth century cinema.


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