How Green Was My Valley has the unfortunate distinction as being the film that beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar. Unfortunate because on its own it is a wonderful film, well made and quite moving at times. If a comparison needs to be made, I'd rather see the two films as complementary representations of two competing ideals of America. Citizen Kane ponders the corrupted American dream through an examination of an increasingly isolated individual trying to recapture, through commercial excess, happiness that was taken away years ago (how very Gatsby-esque). How Green Was My Valley, on the other hand, examines the integrity of the individual spirit and community power in the face of corporate greed and excess. There are elements of each in the other, despite the differences in tone and style, and I like to think the two ideals wrestle with each other, constantly pushing America forward.
So in any other year, I think How Green Was My Valley would have been a worthy winner. But I'm also not surprised that the Academy would chose a film with a generous serving of nostalgia and sentimentality as the alternative to a darker and more negative film. A film that Randolph Hearst had so vehemently campaigned against. And also a film that was the second highest grossing film of 1941. That always helps.
In any case, the film is beautifully photographed with stunning long shots that showcase the beautiful small Welsh town set (it was meant to be shot on location in Wales, but due to the war was shot in California instead) and the ravishing countryside vistas. Equally beautiful are the images of the town and its people binding together as one. Such images really enhance the theme of the power of the community - miners rushing in and out of the mines, the Morgan brothers standing up together to form a union, and the townspeople comforting the Morgan family in moments of tragedy:
Amidst all this communal love, it was the images of the individual spirit standing up above the community that moved me the most. For example, Beth rising above the town gossip to tell the townspeople how far she will go to protect her family:
Or Huw, once the outsider at school, turning adversity into strength, literally, by becoming a boxer:
Argharad bravely turning up in church despite the rumours against her:
And Mr Gruffydd, in a callback to the above scene, turning his back on the townspeople after condemning them for their small-mindedness:
But this is my favourite:
It's an image that stands in stark contrast to the majority of the images we see throughout the movie. Gone are the vistas, the town and the townspeople. In its place is a lone silhouette, in an uphill battle against the smoke and ash that threaten to cover her town. She is searching for solace but is overpowered by capitalism's destructive power. The lost, yearning loneliness of this image packs a real punch, for despite the heartwarming nostalgia of the final montage, this image reminds us of the true darkness of the film. Here, as we begin to wander past the valley of the shadow of death and into the future, it's an ashen valley full of grey men that we see, rather than any green valleys of yesteryear.