This winner of Best Picture in 1941 may well also claim the record for most teary scenes per frame as director John Ford—surely aided and abetted by screenwriter Philip Dunne—spins out the life and times of coal mining in Wales, based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn. Seen through the eyes of a prepubescent boy, the film could have been a disaster if the pivotal role of Huw Morgan had gone to a good-looking lad who didn’t have the rare skill in those so young to effectively mine the deep seams of emotion that burble up to the surface almost constantly.
Why Roddy McDowall never got that year’s Best Actor nod could only have been because of his tender years. With eyes a poppin’ or narrowing in as circumstances warrant, body control to shame many of his elders (the “you will walk when the daffodils bloom” sequence is truly a miracle of acting and cinematography—Arthur C. Miller is incredibly gifted in his choice of angles as well as finding just the right balance of long, medium and head shots: the close-ups during the first wedding silently move the narrative forward in ways that mere words never could) and the future Cornelius of Planet of the Apes’ visage is unbeatable in delivering the full spectrum of “looks that speak volumes.”
Ford’s justifiably legendary direction begins the magic early on (the opening credits are “turned” over like leaves of a book; only to have the mature Huw flipping through an actual book as he prepares to share the back-story for the much earlier part of his life) right to the last hurrah of the Morgan family’s patriarch (father and son are being lifted out of the depths following a deadly cave in, lying lovingly in each other’s arms even as the town vicar—having just been crucified by “idle gossip” and the “poverty of minds” has his arms outstretched exactly as Christ did on the cross—this sort of multilayered, metaphorical stagecraft is as rare as a truthful politician).
The rest of the cast is good if not great. Donald Crisp leads the way as Huw’s stubborn, stoic, god-fearing pa; Sara Allgood is the ideal foil, readily speaking her mind (but knowing her place in the male-dominated society) as Huw’s ma. The rest of the boys—miners all and much older than “accidental?” Huw—provide early beefcake in the wash-up scene then, very quietly, cravat-loving Gwilym (Evan Evans) is readily identifiable as the gay blade of the clan; older sister Angharad is given a beautiful lift thanks to Maureen O’Hara’s ability to gently demonstrate her affections without embarrassing herself or those around her. The object of those being Walter Pidgeon who comes across—until the pivotal denunciation of the small-minded hypocrites amongst his flock—more stiff than sage as the town’s pipe smoking vicar.
Without a doubt, the musical stars of the production are the Welsh Singers whose full-bodied, invigorating voices readily burst into song at the drop of a shovel through good times and bad. Alfred Newman’s lavish symphonic score (how sad that budgets have largely left music production to small ensembles or genuine-imitation electronics) knows just when to slip in a reedy bass clarinet or heaven-looking harp.
The restoration of the original doesn’t fare so well in terms of the music-to-voice ratio. On too many occasions the ear has to strain to sort out just what the narration is conveying above an orchestra that more swamps than supports this otherwise splendid recollection as to How Green Was my Valley. JWR