You might say that mogul Darryl F. Zanuck felt a little tinge of the Morgan family’s pain when he was forced to drastically scale back production of How Green Was My Valley from an intended four-hour Technicolor behemoth, shot overseas and scaled to rival Gone with the Wind, to an intimate black-and-white drama shot domestically with the hills of Malibu standing in for Wales. The trials and tribulations of the Morgans that form the film’s core, specifically the observant intellectual-in-training kid brother Huw (Roddy McDowall), mirror those that bedeviled the Joads in director John Ford’s previous film, The Grapes of Wrath. Though, as modern critics have noted, How Green Was My Valley benefitted in the short run from those all-important degrees of separation from the still fresh psychological scars of the Great Depression depicted in the John Steinbeck adaptation. And if it’s now generally accepted to be a compromised piece of non-agitprop dressed up in more overt melodramatics, it’s worth paying respect to the era that allowed two comparatively right-of-center entertainers to seriously grapple with the dramatic viability of Marxist pedagogy. (And lest one think they were playing their audience and peers for suckers, it should be noted that Ford openly considered this one his own personal favorite, and he stifled whiskey belches to sit for tea with the female cast members—and Roddy—at annual reunions.)
Like The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley tackles the perpetually diminishing rights of the proletariat, and whether human dignity itself is its own reward. Every evening, Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp) sits at the head of a dinner table populated by, aside from Huw, approximately 83 stout-hearted sons, all of whom work in the town’s coal mines and all of whom regard the thin lines of shale permanently etched in their hands as a source of pride. Or at least they did before an abrupt reduction in wages stirs a number of them to unionize, much against the wishes of Gwilym, who believes in the benevolence of the mine’s owners and regards his co-workers’ threats to organize as socialist blasphemy, but stands alongside them regardless. Meanwhile, a dashing young preacher sweeps into town and catches the eye of Huw’s sister Anghara (Maureen O’Hara), though the rigid dogma of the town parish ensures they aren’t likely to set up house and family for themselves.
Though the Morgans’ various serialized stories (told in mini-bildungsroman form through a much older Huw’s narration) sometimes betray How Green Was My Valley‘s origins as a novel, they’re held together by the connecting thread that unites those two basic plot threads. The two things that give men their sense of purpose—God and work—both come home to roost in the place that gives women theirs, and if the dysfunction of the former invariably leads to the dismantlement of the latter (each of the Morgan sons sets sail for America or wherever else they can find work), it’s the institution of home that allows everyone to soldier on through strife in the male-dominated arenas. A square message, to be sure, especially since Ford’s uncompromising The Grapes of Wrath didn’t even allow the pitiable Joads a home at all. But beneath the unobjectionable veneer of nostalgia and the too-pleasant anonymity of those salt-of-the-earth types, Ford’s social conscience convinces. It would be hard to miss given how often he has the camera positioned low enough to look up to his subjects.
Whether it hasn't been a particularly popular movie in 20th Century Fox's back catalogue or whether they're just that good at keeping their original materials in mint condition, the high-definition image on their new Blu-ray edition of How Green Was My Valley is astonishingly crisp and free from artifacts. And that's even taking into account some truly tricky propositions, such as the swirling sheets of snow at the outdoor union meeting and the rushing water during the movie's climactic mine collapse. The contrast is always natural seeming, and there's very little blotching within the darker end of the spectrum. There isn't a whole lot of difference to my ears between the 5.1 remastered mix and the original mono mix. Both are a little more subject to the limitations of the era, though the music track sounds like it's been mastered separately, with far more apparent range in EQs.
Anyone who had this disc in Fox's previous DVD version is going to recognize the entire slate, all of which is recycled. The commentary track is split between actor Anna Lee (who plays the older woman Huw is infatuated with who ends up his aunt) and Ford biographer Joseph McBride. Some of the same information they dish gets distilled down in the half-hour "Hollywood Backstories" featurette, which screams old-school AMC and dances (like I too have up until now) around the movie's reputation as the film that scandalously beat Citizen Kane at the Oscars that year.
Maybe because How Green Was My Valley doesn't delve as deeply into the heart of darkness as Ford did in his earlier The Grapes of Wrath, it remains one of his most curiously underrated films.