Some people enjoy looking back wistfully to their childhood.
I find this habit peculiar at best – sad and self-destructive at worst.
To be clear, I am not saying that I look back at my childhood with anger or trauma. Far from it; I have zero complaints about my upbringing. What I am saying is that I don’t think about it at all.
People who think about the past can make the mistake of idealizing their childhood. Even worse, they can depress themselves by comparing their fantasy childhood with their less-than-perfect life today.
“How Green Was My Valley” is a melodrama about a man who indulges in this ugly sentimental vice.
The narrator is Huw Morgan. Adult Huw is leaving his village of Cym Rhondda forever. Before he goes, he tells us how wonderful it used to be when he was a boy.
The film begins with all the men in town walking to the coal mine joyously, singing a Welsh folk song in unison. Apparently, that is as good as it gets.
The sorrow begins when the miners discover that their pay is being reduced. Good-natured patriarch Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) is willing to work for less. He trusts that management is doing its best.
The Morgan sons observe that there are more laborers than jobs in the mine, so wages are inevitably going to fall … unless the workers organize. Gwillym dismisses this as Socialist sinfulness, but he is outnumbered.
The mine strike is the most sophisticated part of the movie. If they remade “Valley” today, the mine owners would be the villains and the strikers the heroes. But life is not that simple.
What really happens is that the strike makes the townspeople angry and disunified.
They turn on each other. After a miserable winter, the strikers win a pay raise. But the underlying economic realities remain the same. Before long, most of the Morgan sons leave for brighter prospects in New Zealand and America.
I don’t know what director John Ford is trying to say. Is he pro-union? Anti-union? Pro-union but he recognizes that strikes are often counterproductive?
Movie historians are extra hard on the movie because it won Best Picture in 1941, beating much better films like “The Little Foxes,” “Sergeant York,” “The Maltese Falcon,” and “Citizen Kane.”
This isn’t really fair. Director John Ford probably didn’t bully the Oscar voters into giving his mediocre movie the undeserved award. And “How Green Was My Valley” isn’t bad – it’s just intellectually unfocused.
In the climactic scene, the holiest (and hunkiest) clergyman in Cym Rhondda blasts the townspeople for being hateful and Unchristian. Okay … but where did this come from? Just a few years ago, all the guys were walking to work together – smiling and singing. What changed? Is the idea that unionization alone turns saints into sinners? Who funded this movie, the Pinkertons?
And that’s why “How Green Was My Valley” is not a great classic film. It is plenty entertaining and the characters are likeable enough. But its only reason for being is to proclaim that the narrator’s childhood was perfect, and then everything got terrible.
I refuse to support this silly nostalgic way of thinking. In honor of this film, I just threw away my old Main Street Middle School and Montpelier High School yearbooks. My childhood was fine, but I choose to live in the present.