Like the previous Oscar-winning family drama “Cavalcade,” John Ford's 1941 “How Green Was My Valley” was a smash-hit at the box-office even before earning its Oscar nominations. Unlike “Cavalcade,” however, Ford's film was superior in every respect, celebrating what the N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther described as “the majesty of plain people,” and “the beauty which shines in the souls of simple, honest folk.”
Indeed, “How Green Was My Valley” reaffirmed Ford's populist ideology, propagated the year before in another Oscar-nominated family saga, “The Grapes of Wrath,” starring Henry Fonda. Nonetheless, “How Green” was not associated with the anger and leftist politics of John Steinbeck, the author's book, upon which “Grapes of Wrath” was based.
Based on Richard Llewellyn's novel, adapted to the screen by Philip Dunne, “How Green” tells the story of a Welsh mining family, narrated by its youngest son, Huw Morga (child actor Roddy McDowall). Ford's idealized view of the past is seen through the memory of the boy, surrounded as he is by a large, loving family. As in other films, Ford draws parallels between the breakdown of the Morgan family and that of the surrounding community, and by implication America society at large.
“How Green” is one of Ford's most beautiful, if sentimental, pictures. The critic Andrew Sarris has described the movie as an elegiac poem, and for many it was. The film's portrayal of the disintegration of a mining community is of epic and heroic dimensions.
Nominated for ten Oscars, the film won five, honoring Ford's Direction, Arthur Miller's Cinematography and Art direction. Sara Allgood was nominated for Supporting Actress, as the gentle but strong mother, Beth Morgan, and Donald Crisp won the Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Mr. Morgan, the stern patriarch who's later killed in the mine.
Not to be underestimated is the fact that “How Green” film was selected by the Academy voters while the U.S. had already been involved in the War. The film's warmly sympathetic depiction of family unity must have hit deep chords in the country's collective consciousness, which may explain, at least in part, why its two major competitors, Orson Welles's masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” and William Wyler's “The Little Foxes,” each with nine nominations, were the losers. Both films, and particularly “Little Foxes,” represented dark and somber visions of the American family. Once again, the “right” contents and ideological approach made the difference, though it's noteworthy that “How Green” was as visually distinguished, as it was thematically acceptable.
After winning the 1941 Oscars, Fox’s Darryl Zanuck told his colleagues: “When I think of what I got away with, and won the Academy Award with the picture, it is really astonishing. Not only did we drop five or six characters, we eliminated the most controversial element in the book, which was the labor-and-capital battle in connection with the strike.”
Indeed, there was nothing really divisive or particularly agitating and provocative about this well made, enjoyable film, which focuses on the family as a scared institution.