By 1941, John Ford (1894–1973) had attained the peak of the Hollywood studio system. Aside from a few of his later Westerns, How Green Was My Valley remains unchallenged as his best film. It beat out Citizen Kane for the Oscar (partially due to industry antipathy toward Orson Welles), but it also stands head-and-shoulders above any other film that Hollywood, in its collective wisdom, ever managed to choose for its top award. This all was somewhat accidental, since the film was originally intended to be in color and directed by William Wyler in Britain. Somehow the final product, shot in black and white on the Fox back lot and remaining faithful to Richard Llewellyn’s fine novel, is ineffably Fordian. Much credit must go to the veteran screenwriter, Philip Dunne, who later wound up writing speeches for Jack Kennedy. Surprisingly, his only other collaboration with Ford was on Pinky (1949), begun by Ford but credited finally to a Ford acolyte, Elia Kazan. One must also credit Arthur C. Miller, who had photographed several previous films for Ford, including Young Mr. Lincoln.Llewellyn’s novel is a tale of memory, recounting a childhood among the poor coal miners of Wales. Ford’s images are graphic and stunning, and he evokes splendid performances from his ensemble cast. There is the sense that How Green Was My Valley is a long and intensely moving poem, a profound elegy to lost youth and family love. The film, appropriately, is entirely about memory. A great warmth and lyricism runs through its entire length and the narrative flow is unfragmented—the antithesis of that in Citizen Kane. It is Ford’s most explicit statement of devotion to what one thinks of as the traditional values of home and family.
Like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers (1956), Ford himself apparently never had a truly satisfying family life as an adult. How Green Was My Valley, however, does seem to echo his own childhood in a large family living in a small Maine town. (This includes Roddy McDowall’s long illness, something Ford himself experienced with diptheria, falling a year behind in school, but enriching himself with literature, “all the noble books”—read to him by his widowed sister, for whom the Anna Lee character was a surrogate in the film—to become the closeted intellectual he was. Ford believed in the (for him unobtainable) conventional patterns of life. It is, indeed, Tom Doniphon’s (John Wayne, again) ultimate self-sacrificing purpose in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) to create an environment in the American West where the traditions of civilization, the values of home and family, could take root. Although How Green Was My Valley is set in Wales, it is the best and most personal of his “Irish” films. McDowall’s parents, Sara Allgood and Donald Crisp, are clearly modeled on Ford’s parents, and the coping of a shy little boy with many older brothers is felt from memory. It is, as biographer Joseph McBride says, “a Feeney (the family’s original name) family portrait.”Ford’s depiction of families, and particularly mothers, grew out of such sentimentalized silents as Mother Machree and Four Sons (both 1928), and he persisted with Pilgrimage (1933), but the mothers played by Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath and Sara Allgood in How Green Was My Valley are much more complex and deeply felt, betraying Ford’s dependency on and attachment to his own mother, who had died while Pilgrimage was filming. Such familial concern would occasionally surface again in Ford’s films, perhaps most movingly, oddly enough, in his cavalry Western, Rio Grande (1950), in which young soldier Claude Jarman, Jr., is torn between his estranged parents (Wayne and Maureen O’Hara).
How Green Was My Valley was O’Hara’s first film with Ford, and she would go on to the glories of Rio Grande, The Quiet Man (which we will be showing May 20 and 22 in the upcoming Irish film series curated by Gabriel Byrne), The Long Gray Line, and The Wings of Eagles. O’Hara became the quintessential heroine for a director never entirely comfortable with women. The complex relationship is explored in O’Hara’s fascinating autobiography, ‘Tis Herself. There was love, hate, and a helluva lot of other stuff going on between them then and over the next third of a century, but by the time How Green Was My Valley was completed, O’ Hara “thought John Ford was a walking god.”