Monday, February 15, 2016

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford
Writer: Philip Dunne
DP: Arthur Miller
Editor: James B. Clark
Score: Alfred Newman
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Starring: Roddy McDowell, Donald Crisp, Walter Pidgeon, Sara Allgood, Anna Lee, Maureen O'Hara, Patric Knowles, John Loder, Evan S. Evans, James Monks, Irving Pichel
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
Length: 1 hr. 58 min.

How Green Was My Valley is an unabashedly sentimental film.  It observes the past through a lens of nostalgia, and it maintains that even when harsh facts of life intrude on the characters.  It begins in an idyllic state that slowly collapses, but it preserves the memory of that state.  In moments when doors to the ideal future are closed, the camera turns to the bereaved, lamenting the loss of what might have been.

It opens with desolate images of an old, mostly abandoned coal-mining town covered in black dust and populated by very few.  A narrator says that if he closes his eyes, this depressing landscape will be gone, and indeed it is: we leave the desolation and return to a past depicted in images of perfect unity and warmth, both within a community and within a family.  A group of men move as a collective, singing in unison as they return home from a day at work in the coal mines.  A family sits down to eat, their dining room crowded by their presence, heavenly light shining through the windows.  A bride and groom get married, and the entire town comes to celebrate with them.

This harmonious existence does not last, but the film makes the case that it only truly ceases to exist when it is forgotten; to maintain its memory is to maintain the thoughtful, loving state of mind it comprised.  As Huw, the film's young main character, grows up, we can see how he adopts this idea: his narration tells us his approach to facing reality comes from his memories of the love and guidance he received from various individuals.  By the end of the film, he's taken on traits and roles that were once held by those he looked to for guidance.

We can see what lies behind that guidance in the film's first major conflict.  It involves a community being fragmented due to politics, then brought back to solidarity by a few individuals who stand for familial love.  How Green Was My Valley treats political action as a way to use the power of numbers to let people fight for their livelihoods.  It only takes whichever political stance best preserves the utopia it depicted at the beginning; it advocates for its characters not to divide themselves any more than reality itself inevitably will.  Throughout the film, we hear lines from various characters equating compassion to sense: whenever a character refuses sympathy, another insists that it's simply prudent.

Ultimately, though the film is a mournful look at the past, it's not a regretful one; there is no decision Huw wishes to reverse, or any serious personal failing that leads to succeeding unfortunate events.  Rather, it takes the emotional position of someone who doesn't find adequacy in something less than ideal.  It channels its nostalgia forward, cultivating a mentality that in turn cultivates an aspiration for a better future.  The film's most prominent guiding figure, the preacher Mr. Gruffydd, explains this, constantly reminding people to think critically about themselves and about the future they want.

This striving becomes clear in one of the film's final shots, one that matches a shot from earlier in the film.  The earlier shot depicted Huw's father; the later shot depicts Huw taking on the same position his father did.  The scene in which this shot appears is emotionally charged, and the film builds a climax on that; however, that climax is equally built on visually passing down the mantle.  It leaves the future open to Huw, and shows its relationship to the influence of his past.

Aside from this, there are other visual elements that span multiple scenes.  The film uses recurring images of windows and lamps in the background and foreground.  The windows are especially noticeable; the light that comes through them is often clearly visible on the ceiling, forming halo-like arrays.  That light is used to modulate the tone in other directions, too: in one scene, when things become tense and uncertain among members of a household, it rains outside; the light from the windows wavers, bringing the effect of the rain inside the house.

How Green Was My Valley proves the value and potential intelligence of sentimentality in film.  It's a document of events designed to make an emotional appeal; it provides a way of looking at reality that asks the viewer to consider how their beliefs are formed.  It frees the mind.

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