• John Ford was a great director for decades, but the greatest single stretch during that long, distinguished career, was from 1939-1941 with Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.
  • Ford did not open up often to talk about his work but on occasion he would call this his favorite of his own films.
  • How Green Was My Valley won five (nominated for ten) Academy Awards (including best picture and best director). It often gets brought up among cinephiles as the film that beat Citizen Kane and is seen in that context. But this is not Around the World in 80 Days (1956 over The Searchers), Oliver! (1968 over 2001: A Space Odyssey), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979 over Apocalypse Now) or The Artist (2011 over The Tree of Life). Ford’s film is an artistic behemoth in its own right, even if it falls short of Welles’ Kane.
  • Early on the project was going to be in the hands of William Wyler who left to make The Little Foxes. I believe the war changed things (this was going to be shot on location in Wales, where the film is set). They constructed an elaborate set in California instead.

This is one of Ford’s most ambitious projects. Part of the talented crew assembled was art director Richard Day (winner of a whopping seven Oscars overall). Day helped build the massive coal mining set that took months of construction to build.

A breathtaking frame early at the 3-minute mark with Maureen O’Hara (21 years old here, and already a few archiveable films under her belt) in front of the coal stacks like Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). This may seem like the only time you could compare Antonioni and Ford- but it holds- and Ford even went as far as painting the hillside black to make it look like an authentic with the coal mining. Painting a hillside is a move out of Antonioni’s playbook. Ford shows a dedication to background as well as foreground throughout that frankly most of his work does not.

  • With the tremendous set piece (the entire town with the mineshaft on the hill) and a ton of extras- this is the stuff of Griffith, von Stroheim, Eisenstein or Lang’s Metropolis.
  • Community and John Ford—yes, he is sentimental (he really leans into the mother crying when the sons come home at the 37-minute mark) and he is never to be confused with an intellectual—but he is obsessed with ritual. You have the marriage ceremonies (with the wind blowing O’Hara’s veil straight up), praying as a group at the 81-minute mark and How Green Was My Valley is very musical. There are four songs in the first fifteen minutes of the film. This is Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988).
  • Irving Pichel’s sort of whispering voice-over is our narrative vehicle. There are some formal issues with Ford capturing private moments between Walter Pidgeon’s Mr. Gruffydd and O’Hara’s Angharad that Huw (the narrator) would not be privy to.

Ford often uses the extras as a gorgeous choral gallery—like birds on a wire at the mine (below). Ford here is very concerned not just about the principal characters but the collective (another Eisenstein comparison which he would hate- haha). For a director who was famous for not doing many takes, the symmetry and detailed designing of the frame with the collective is absolutely remarkable.

Donald Crisp as the patriarch here in front of one of the great set constructions in cinema history

symmetry and frame design aplenty– not always a Fordian characteristic

Perhaps the film’s most transcendent single visual sequence is young Roddy McDowall with Donald Crisp (father and son) at the flowerbed at the 53-minute mark.

  • At the 64-minute mark Ford places the lantern at the foreground left, and captures O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon’s kiss at a skillful distance.
  • Thematically it makes a perfect twin billing with The Grapes of Wrath– the story of a family set against nearly unfathomable hardships.
  • At the 84-minute mark Anna Lee in the background leaving the door ajar. Crisp and McDowall are in the foreground pausing—Ford has a patience here that he’d only show again in his best work like The Searchers (1956) or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)- he has a reverence for the compositions (this one is just one of the many that are worthy of praise). He captures many of these as he clearly told the actors not to move from their poses as he slowly brings them up from the mineshaft after a tragedy.
  • Masterpiece