How Green Was My Valley (1941) Review

How Green Was My Valley (1941) Director: John Ford

How Green Was My Valley is the film version of Richard Llewellyn’s popular 1939 novel of the same name. He claimed the story was autobiographical, but this was proven to be untrue after his death. Instead, he interviewed a number of families from Gilfach Goch, where Llewellyn’s grandfather lived in South Wales (the beautiful set for the film was actually constructed and shot in the hills surrounding Malibu in California).

how green


How Green Was My Valley is an affectionate and beautiful tale. It is Hollywood at its best. Is it excessively sentimental? Perhaps. But for those of us who appreciate a great film that hearkens back to an imagined time of simple, hard-working people and their families, How Green Was My Valley is a near perfect film. There can hardly be a dry eye in the house at the end of the picture when the lifeless body of Gwilym Morgan is slowly raised out of the coal mine. Released on the heels of the United States entering World War II, this film recalls the innocence of youth, heartbreak, loss, and the powerful desire to return to a simpler time. Later in life, John Ford apparently remembered this movie as among his personal favorites.

The story is about the Morgans, a poor but humble family living in a coal mining town in South Wales. The time period is during Queen Victoria’s reign in the late 19th century. The main character and narrator is Huw Morgan -we experience the beauty of his valley through his young eyes. He is the youngest of several Morgan children -his older brothers work in the coal mine with their father, Gwilym Morgan, and Huw also has an older sister who is in love with the town preacher. Consider the beautiful opening lines of the film:

I am packing my belongings in the shawl my mother used to wear when she went to the market. And I’m going from my valley. And this time, I shall never return. I am leaving behind me my fifty years of memory. Memory. Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed, and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago – of men and women long since dead. Yet who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are still a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind. There is no fence nor hedge round Time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my Valley as it is today – and it is gone – and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful.

The beginning of the movie is pastoral: the hills are green and the townsfolk are friendly. As the film progresses, the plot becomes episodic and we experience a number of small changes in the Morgan family, but the most significant shift in the plot occurs when wages are cut at the local coal mine. The elder Morgan is unable to persuade the owners to pay fair wages so the workers strike, despite Mr. Morgan’s objections against “socialism.” Eventually, the coal mine reopens, but not all the workers in town may return to work. They become more despairing from this point on. Several of the Morgan boys leave to find work in America. Huw’s older sister submits to a loveless marriage for her own security, despite her true love for the town preacher. And Huw attends a school where the boys and the teacher are abusive. Things begin to fall apart for the Morgan family and their beautiful valley. In the end, Gwilym Morgan dies during an accident in the coal mine, devastating the town and the Morgan family.

The film closes with fond reflections and beautiful imagery from a much older Huw (as in the beginning):

“Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.”

How Green Was My Valley rather infamously beat Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1941. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and won five, including a Best Director award for John Ford, a genius who is typically celebrated for his Western genre films. The film brings together the fiery relationship between directorial genius, John Ford, and Fox producer, Darryl Zanuck. With How Green Was My Valley, 20th Century Fox initially intended to create another massive epic akin to Gone With the Wind, shot on location in Wales, but the outbreak of World War II made that dream impossible.

Intentionality in The Friar’s Tale

In his prologue, the Friar is called a “beggar” with a “scowling face at the Summoner.” In the “General Prologue” the Friar is characterized as a “wantowne” and “merye” man who dwells within an assigned region. He has a white neck like a ‘lily flower,’ and he knows great dalliance and fair speech. He is also a profit-minded beggar (like the begging friars described in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”), and in traveling the countryside this Friar knows the taverns and innkeepers, as well as the lechers and harlots. He has a slight lisp, dons expensive clothes, and his name is Huberd.

He responds to the Wife of Bath by praising her tale for raising certain “academic” issues, but that these tales on the road to Canterbury should be of ‘pleasant matters’ (or “game”). Ironically, he proceeds to tell an amusing, albeit unpleasant story attacking summoners. In some ways it mirrors Aristophanes’s The Frogs (which portrays Dionysus in disguise). The Friar claims that authoritative texts are best left to the churches and the universities -he condescendingly explains this to the Wife of Bath whom he views as anything but an authority. He endeavors to tell an amusing tale about a summoner, even though he claims that no good may actually be said of a summoner. Therefore his tale will contain nothing good. The Host asks the Friar not to start an argument, but the Summoner interjects and allows for the Friar’s Tale to proceed (the Summoner plans to respond to the Friar later).

The “Friar’s Tale” takes place in his own country (we are unclear where this might be). It is about an archdeacon who deals punishments for transgressions against the law, with a particular focus on lechery. He brings many people to justice, forcing many to pay for their crimes, and he has a summoner -“a slyer boye nas noon in Engelond” (1322). Here, the Friar claims summoners have no jurisdiction over our lives, which causes a brief spat with the Summoner. At any rate, the tale continues: the summoner in the tale is a thief, a briber, and he steals from many people under false pretenses to enrich himself.

One day, the summoner visits an old widow seeking a bribe when he meets a yeoman along the way and they become friends. They swear lifelong friendship and pleasantries with one another, and we soon discover that this yeoman is the devil in disguise. The summoner swears himself to the devil. The two men ride along together, discussing the finer points of their respective trades. They come upon a cart-man whose horses are stuck, he shouts out ‘devil may take them!’ The greedy summoner asks the devil why he does not claim the cart-man’s horses, but the devil says it was not the man’s ‘entente’ or intention. So they depart with the summoner promising to fare better (i.e. gain more profit for himself). The devil comes to light as more of a respectful gentleman than the summoner.

They arrive at the widow’s home and the summoner fabricates judicial claims against her, demanding a bribe, however she swears at him, damning him to hell. The devil notes that her “entente” is true, so he takes the summoner down to hell, thus concluding the brief tale. Ironically, the devil is the hero of the story, bringing the summoner to justice. I suppose even the devil can be good, if only he has the right intentions.

Politically, the “Friar’s Tale” presents one man, an anonymous archdeacon who silently fills the place of Theseus from the “Knight’s Tale.” He is the boss of the summoner in the tale, and a capable judicial officer. The archdeacon represents the church, which is superior to the summoner, thus the friar elevates himself over the summoner. The idea of profit runs deep in “The Friar’s Tale” as is trust, which is an underlying theme worthy of consideration throughout The Canterbury Tales (such as in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”). There is no mention of marriage in “The Friar’s Tale,” however the unique partnership between the summoner and the devil forms a friendly compact, such that a bond of trust ensues. The bond of ‘brotherhood’ that occurs in “The Friar’s Tale” beckons us to question whether or not we have found the true and just partnership among the varying tales from Chaucer’s pilgrims thus far.

The word “entente,” or “intent,” occurs frequently throughout the tale, highlighting the importance of a man’s intentions when committing good or evil acts. Whereas the Wife of Bath is something of a hedonist, taking whatever she desires, the Friar brings to light the need to consider her true intentions. Her desire is for power and personal gain, not unlike the summoner in the “Friar’s Tale,” and no just partnership can come about from dishonest intentions. Perhaps the Friar is a beggar, but is his intent for personal gain? His tale would suggest not, for even the devil is more selfless than a summoner in “The Friar’s Tale.”

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

A Parody of Greek Mythology In The Peace

As with other comedies by Aristophanes, The Peace (“Eirene”), begins in an ordinary and everyday situation that is soon challenged with an absurd or impossible scenario. Like The Wasps, The Peace also features a wealthy gentleman overcome by the unique and ridiculous appearance of a mental disease -he plans to fly up to the gods on a giant dung beetle much to the confusion of his servants. Trygaios is his name, a vinedresser. His name brings to the mind the word “vintage” originating from the practice of viticulture, as well as the word “trygedy” -the word Aristophanes sometimes uses to describe his brand of comedy.

The Peace was first performed during the Peloponnesian War. The play’s setting takes place shortly after the death of Brasidas (Sparta) and also Cleon (Athens), whom Aristophanes continues to ridicule even in death. In 421 BC, with both of the key hawks dead in battle, Nicias had just secured a peace treaty between Athens and Sparta (as detailed in Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War Book V). In the play, Aristophanes playfully addresses the Athenian’s desire for peace by putting a Quixotix gentleman atop a dung beetle which flies into the heavens. Aristophanes crosses the boundary between physiologia and theologia. However, upon doing so he finds the heavens quite empty save for Hermes who tells him that the gods have left for other regions because they cannot stand the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesus. In the gods’ absence a character named “War” has kidnapped and enslaved another character named “Peace” in a nearby cave. War appears onstage, lamenting the death of Brasidas and Cleon, his two chief tools for the destruction of the Greeks.

Trygaios (the gentleman protagonist) razes an army of Greek farmers who help him discover the cave of “Peace” where she has been kidnapped, along with “Harvest” and “Festival” -the former being essential for the farmer’s lifestyle. In the end, like a Greek hero Trygaios rescues the trio (Peace, Harvest, and Festival) and he returns to Greece amidst celebration where he marries “Harvest.” It ends in a praise of the idyllic and peaceful country life. However, the rescue of Peace supports the farmers but not the merchandisers who were profiting from the war. Trygaios refuses to allow a recitation of Homer’s Iliad at his wedding.

Why is Trygaios not a hero like Odysseus descending into Hades? Why is he laughable? According to the classical conception of comedy (i.e. Aristotle’s Poetics), someone is laughable if they have a certain defect while believing they possess excellence, when in fact they actually fall short of their own standard. This ‘missing of the mark’ causes an audience to lose seriousness or heaviness, and it offers a release into a kind of drunken state of relaxation. The effect of comedy also releases an audience from political constraints, along with other weighty topics like war. Laughter has an odd way of making clear certain lines between things that are surely noble, like reclaiming peace for Athens, and things that are odd and impossible, like flying into the skies to meet the gods on the back of a dung beetle. Odysseus, Herakles, and even Dante, venture downward where things are dark and heavy in the underworld, while Trygaios flies upward in a silly fashion. Surely Odysseus would never be caught flying on the back of a beetle.

In reflection, in The Clouds Socrates denies the existence of the gods and turns his back on the city, while the comic poet of the Acharnians rejects the city but not the gods, and in The Peace the poet acts in harmony with the city, but against the will of the gods who are mostly absent. We are left to wonder whether The Clouds is a greater satire of the highest things for Aristophanes. In The Clouds he depicts the atheist philosopher among the clouds and contemplating irrelevent things, while The Peace satirizes higher things with an ordinary man flying on a dung beetle to the gods who are largely absent and silent.

For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

Tobit: An Apocryphal Romance

The Book of Tobit can be found in Catholic and other Orthodox biblical texts, however it is not canonical in the Protestant or Hebrew canons. It is considered an apocryphal book. However, it was announced to be canonical at the Council of Hippo 393, as well as other councils extending into the 16th century. Aramaic and Hebrew copies were found among the scrolls at Qumran, it was included among the texts of the Greek Septuagint, and also Jerome included Tobit in his Vulgate (apparently, he had access to an Aramaic version of the text). Various theories exist as to why the book is not truly considered to be part of the biblical canon.

Tobit is a moral and upstanding Israelite, following all of the guidelines of the Torah and avoiding eating the foreign meat while in captivity in Nineveh. He has a confrontational wife and a son named Tobias. He initially finds favor among the region’s leaders, and gives charitably to his fellow Israelites in captivity, while also lecturing them on proper godliness, however eventually the emperor’s son banishes Tobit. In the night, he sleeps on the street and a bird defecates onto his eyes, leaving him blinded. This is described as a test of Tobit, not unlike “holy Job.”

“Archangel Raphael and Tobit” by Titian in 1542

At the same time, in the land of the Medes (possibly Persia), a young woman named Sara is distraught for a demon (Asmodeus, the “worst of demons” -an evil, Epicurean devil of earthly lust) kills each of her husbands on their wedding night before their marriage may be consummated. Thus God sends the angel Raphael to guide Tobias as he leaves home -Tobias is sent by Tobit to collect money of his held by the Medes. One the road, Tobias goes fishing and is attacked by a fish. Raphael instructs Tobias to take out the fishes innards. When he arrives in Media, he falls in love with Sara (his cousin, whom he is therefore legally within his rights to marry) and on their wedding night he burns the liver and heart of the fish, per Raphael’s instructions, to scare away the demon. The fumes drive the demon to upper Egypt where Raphael attacks and binds him. After their wedding feast, Tobias and Sara return to Nineveh where Tobias uses the rest of the fishes innards to cure his father, Tobit, of his blindness. They pray together and Tobit advises him to leave Nineveh, as God plans destruction on the Assyrians. Therefore, the text concludes with Tobias and Sara returning to Media.

The book is a beautiful fable; a comedy of two people suffering who find joy in the end, thanks, in part, due to the piousness of their families and also due to the intervention of a divine deus ex machina. The inclusion of “aeshma daeva” the demon transliterated as Asmodeus, is intriguing and Tobit is the primary occurrence where Asmodeus, “the prince of all demons” appears in biblical literature, though he originates somewhere in Talmudic folklore and continues throughout Christian and Islamic traditions. His country of origin is likely as a deity of ancient Syria.

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.