There are few filmmakers from the "Old Hollywood" era who dedicated more time to exploring American mythology than John Ford. Ford is perhaps today most famous for his Westerns, such as Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, as well as his adaptations of major 20th century novels such as The Grapes of Wrath (which won him one of his record four Best Director Oscars; curiously, he never won one for a Western). To make these films, Ford used the then-unconventional method of shooting on location, allowing his camera to take in the landscape and let it shape and impact the story he was telling. His films - especially the Westerns - deconstructed the myths and myth-makers of America in a way that hadn't really been done. He was a patriot, to be sure; when the United States entered WWII, Ford enlisted in the US Navy and made documentaries for the Office of Strategic Services. But through his films, he questioned the "unquestionable" ideas that America was built on, and often uncovered less-than-noble incidents driving them.
This week's selection for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," 1941 Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley (the only of his films to win that prize), doesn't take place in the United States. Based on the novel of the same name by Richard Llewellyn, the film follows the Morgan family as they struggle to survive the changing times in the late 19th century in a coal-mining town in Wales. The film is told from the perspective of youngest son Huw (Roddy McDowell), as he watches his father (Donald Crisp), mother (Sara Allgood), brothers (most notably Ivor, played by Patric Knowles), and sister (Maureen O'Hara) deal with the hands fate deals them. He also witnesses the deterioration of the town itself, thanks to numerous mining accidents and the stripping of the land by soot. Rather than tell a straight-forward narrative, the film is presented as a series of vignettes from Huw's life, as he grows up in these conditions.
Yet the film still manages to explore Ford's favorite themes of American mythology, and not just because this version of Wales looks suspiciously like Southern California.
More after the jump.
Ford was never an overtly political person in his films, though in reality he shifted from progressive to conservative over the course of his life. Yet to call his films "apolitical" is a bit of a misnomer. They are political without really choosing an explicit side in their politics. How Green Was My Valley is essentially a film about labor rights, as the town's miners (the majority of the male population) are given diminished wages, cut from their jobs, and work in dangerous conditions. Some of the townspeople - namely the Morgan sons - want to unionize, while others, including Mr. Morgan, fear the intrusion of socialism into their lives. Ford never takes a side in this central struggle, allowing both sides to weigh in but not deciding on one being "right" or "wrong." Though this struggle of workers vs. owners occurred throughout the industrial world during this time, the Welsh version presented in the film is essentially the American version of events transplanted onto Llewellyn's original story.
But Ford's gift as a director was in the way he visually explored the themes of his films, using powerful, often breathtaking images to make his statements land with greater impact. For example, when Huw announces that he's revoking continuing his education in favor of entering the mines to support the ailing family, Ford follows up with an image of him, face covered in soot, pushing a cart through the dark tunnels of the mine:
It's hard not to feel the impact of seeing a young boy in this situation.
The more impressive - and oft-repeated - visual motif Ford utilizes is the layout of the village. The village actually sits within a valley, and on either side of it sits a monument to the main social ideas at play within both the everyday lives of the villagers and the narrative of the film. On one end is the church, one of two main meeting places in the village:
On the other end, looming over the town like a giant, smoking overlord, is the mine and refinery that produces the town's coal and functions as a meeting place for the town's workers:
Capitalism vs. religion, new ways vs. old ways. These are the main tensions of the history of industrialization, when factory-based work replaced individual production and displaced families from their homes. And by placing them on either end of the village, raised on natural pedestals, Ford cues us in that these are the two forces fighting for dominance in the newly-industrial landscape. Yet, as the film shows from the very beginning, nobody wins in this fight. The Morgan family survives, but barely, and they're hardly the people they were before (the narration by an older Huw is weighted with loss and nostalgia). The once-lively landscape is now covered in soot and spill.
It's also notable how Ford frames the Morgans' home in comparison to the church and mine. The church, where new pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) practices, is often depicted as a cavernous space with notable emptiness:
Meanwhile, the coal mine is, naturally, cramped and claustrophobic:
As for the Morgan's home, standing in for the domestic sphere of the village? The ceilings are low, the rooms small, and the family seeming like giants within their own walls:
Between the traditionalism of the church and the modernity of the mine, guess which one is winning the war at home?
Yet in Ford's eyes, there are no winners in this situation. Industrialization, celebrated in American culture as the backbone of our nation's economic emergence, was a painful, destructive process that turned the working class into fodder for the owning class' profit margins. How Green Was My Valley may follow the travails of a Welsh family and the village they live in, but it's a strong indictment of an American tradition that continues into the present day.
*Sorry that this got really academic, but every time I try to think about this film (and Ford in general), this is what I think about.*