There is no logical reason why you should feel as warm and nostalgic as you do at the end of How Green Was My Valley. An adaptation of the Richard Llewellyn novel about a coal-mining family in 19th-century Wales, the movie chronicles the work stoppages, hunger, heartbreak, illness, death and separation that define their life together. And yet, as seen through the eyes of Huw (Roddy McDowall), the youngest of the six Morgan brothers, the valley is also a place of comfort and camaraderie, exaltation and exuberance.
Is this willful naïveté? Hardly, as director John Ford takes great care to depict the hardships faced by the Morgans and others in their community. (And this is first and foremost a movie of community, as evidenced by the many shots of men facing the camera, all wearing the same coal-dusted caps.) Indeed, the images that may stick with you the longest are the painful ones: the sooty, worn faces of the workers reading a notice about a reduction in wages; the Pieta pose of Huw and his father (Donald Crisp) after a mine accident, with the village preacher (Walter Pidgeon) hovering over them like a helpless angel; the lifeless face of the Morgans’ sole daughter, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), after reluctantly marrying the mine owner’s son rather than the preacher she loves. (Notice, in that last shot, how Angharad’s veil blows about in the wind, as if it’s trying to escape.)
And yet, How Green Was My Valley thrums with an indomitable confidence in a better day, one that’s rooted in the memory that life in this valley – before the mine hollowed things out – was once very good. This spirit of perseverance is captured in the many songs that accompany almost every occasion in the village, be it a wedding, a wake or simply the daily walk home from the mines. (All group shots again.) The echoes of these songs can be heard in the movie’s bookends, in which a grown Huw prepares to leave the valley for good. Regret and sadness tinge the two scenes, to be sure, but mostly there is faith in the road ahead.