This is a particularly saccharine example of the sentimental, nostalgic films that came out during the early 1940s in an effort to comfort audiences emotionally ravaged by war. It takes wallowing in the memory of the good old days to an art form.
In one of the biggest Oscar coups of all time, this film which is all but forgotten amongst modern audiences, ended up winning Best Picture. Which, like, ok, but do you know what its competition was? Sergeant York, The Maltese Falcon, and Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane. Some mornings I wake up and remember this and it makes me legitimately upset.
How Green Was My Valley is an old man reminiscing about his childhood in Wales, using the kind of romantic narration that always seems to show up in These Kinds of Films, whether it's wanted or needed. The young version of this man is played by an itty bitty Roddy McDowall, who you may or may not recognize as Cornelius from Planet of the Apes.
Little Roddy is pretty darn awesome, but unfortunately he also happens to be the biggest problem I have with the movie. Not technically him, but the fact that he was cast for the entire film rather than just the first half. Because a shit ton of stuff happens in this movie, that would logically take up a lot of time. Like years of time.
Here's an example: his sister falls in love with a preacher, is encouraged to court and marry someone else, moves to South Africa with her husband, their relationship falls apart, and she moves back to Wales to live in her estranged husband's mansion. Realistically, there is no way that this happens in less than three years, given the lengthy courtship process and how long it would take to travel to and from South Africa during this time period. Yet little Huw (McDowall) is inexplicably the same age at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning.
Now, this might be forgivable, were it not for the writing so clearly indicating that Huw has grown up. There's a subplot where he falls in love with his dead brother's wife and moves in with her so that he can be the breadwinner for her and her child, for God's sake. Maybe acceptable if they hired a 20 year old actor for older Huw and had him play down to age 16 or so, but poor little Roddy McDowall's voice hasn't even broken yet. So it's just creepy.
This also bleeds into other plot elements. The whole point of Huw is that he's the smartest one in his family. He has a chance to make something of himself and not be stuck in the mines like his brothers and father. He passes an entrance exam to get into a legitimate school that will pave the way for him to go to university and become a doctor or a lawyer or something.
But then when Huw finishes school, he's just like JK I decided I want to go into the mines even though it's disgusting and dangerous and one of my brothers already died down there. And his parents are just like, "OK."
Why are you listening to him? He's a thirteen year old boy, he should not be in the position to make this decision, just send his ass to college and be done with it. But then it dawns on you, the audience member pulling your hair out at their stupidity, that the script intended for Huw to be 16 or 17 at this point, and therefore old enough to make his own decisions. It just makes no goddamn sense and it's infuriating.
Other than that, it's a sweet movie, but one that doesn't mesh well with cynical modern audiences. For example, I don't know if it's just because I recently saw Spotlight, but I am immediately suspicious of this clergyman who's getting all intimate and buddy-buddy with Huw. Maybe it was fine and dandy in 1941, but I'm not on board with it.
Also, the accents are sort of bizarre -- they seem like they're from every corner of the British Isles, and none of the actors bothered consulting with one another about which accents they were doing. Some are Irish, some are English, and some of them sound like they're doing bad Indian impressions a la Apu from The Simpsons.
(Although I did some research and one of the first Google search suggestions was, 'Why do Welsh accents sound Indian?" So apparently this is a thing, and the ones in the movie who sound ridiculous are actually doing the best job? Sorry Wales. My bad.)
And I don't know if it's just me, but there is altogether too much singing in this movie. It clocks in at a little over two hours, and they probably could have shaved off a good twenty minutes were it not for the superfluous musical scenes that go on and on for an eternity.
There are moments in this film where the melodrama works (the scenes after the mining accident near the end are particularly effective), but most of the time it just feels like a particularly unsubtle attempt to force 1940s audiences to overdose on nostalgia. John Ford has what borders on an obsession with the folksy, simple folk of the Irish countryside (this film, obviously, is set in Wales, but to John Ford they may as well be the same thing), something we see again in The Quiet Man. Which is fine, but there were so many technically innovative and creatively interesting films released in the 1940s that I have a hard time recommending this slight period piece as anything out of the common way.