The film is best known for a bad reason: having beaten Citizen Kane for the Oscar, How Green Was My Valley is history’s foremost example of the Perfectly Fine Film That People Hate Because It Won An Award – its descendants including such films as Shakespeare in Love and The Artist. It’s an unfair, stupid side effect of awards-watching, but never was it more unfair or stupid than in this case. Citizen Kane, after all, is hardly the only masterpiece of American cinema that lost an Oscar, and at least it got nominated (Singin’ in the Rain, which couldn’t get anything more prestigious than a Supporting Actress nod in the year that The Greatest Show on Earth picked up the top award, has your unfair right here, buster). And frankly, How Green Was My Valley is among the best Best Picture winners regardless of what films it had to beat to get there, so throwing it out for utterly trivial reasons, as generations of cinephiles have, is wanton absurdity. It’s a John Ford picture, for chrissake, and if we can’t give John Ford pictures the benefit of the doubt, then I don’t know why to even bother having a film culture.
It is, admittedly, enthusiastically sentimental even by Ford standards, and feels like it’s from a different planet than the caustically cynical Citizen Kane. And this perhaps does not help its reputation. It is a film about nostalgia: a family drama in which there is no real shape or conflict besides the recollection of a grown man (uncredited narrator Irving Pichel, with his warmly sober voice, tinged with acceptance of loss, makes at least as much of an impression as any of the flesh-and-blood humans in the film) of a period of change in the small Welsh town where he grew up. It’s a mixture of right and left wing impulses – basically, a story about how the quest for corporate profits ruins the innocence and charm of rural life – in exactly the right way that makes it not entirely right for modern tastes. But I’m a huge fan, anyway; it’s in my Ford Top 10, for sure, and that’s not a man whose career is lacking for absolutely tremendous films.
Anyway, the shot.
This comes from waaaay early in the film, when our narrator is still introducing the bucolic peace of the town in his childhood:
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.
Those are the words, more or less, underlining this image. We’ve already seen the “today” version of the town as a hellpit of belching black smoke and filthy surfaces, so we know exactly what he’s talking about. If this moment, in a kind of half-montage (it’s all chronologically continuous, but the cutting between physical spaces is more associative than narrative), is part of a general program of making the little town seem as dear as possible, with its lovely buildings nestled in amongst the rolling hills in a series of landscape shots that find Ford and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller doing their very best impression of 19th Century British landscape paintings. And yet, the future sneaks in: there’s that chunky coal, rolling away from Donald Crisp and little Roddy McDowall – the hills are literally crumbling under the industrial development – and there, in the corner, is the single plume of jet black smoke, ominously echoing the corridor of smog that opened the film, looking down on the quaint buildings in the right.
It is, while a happy shot of a happy moment of father and son bonding, still an ominous one. It’s not foreshadowing, exactly, if we’ve already seen where things are going, so let’s just call it a splash of cold water. While everything else tries to convince us that we’re about to watch a movie of untroubled people in an untroubled time, the implications of this frame bluntly and coldly remind us that there are, in fact, plenty of troubles on the way, and that you can’t stop the march of progress even when the cost in humanity and beauty is severe.
Or let’s just put it simply: from left to right, the shot presents an undesirable, run-down future, a present moment of family domesticity, and the already hazy past of idealised innocence. Can’t pin down the film’s range of themes more explicitly than that.