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Literature / How Green Was My Valley

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"How green was my valley then, and the valley of them that have gone."
Last line of the novel

How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, which was adapted into a 1941 20th Century Fox film directed by John Ford and starring Walter Pidgeon, Donald Crisp, Maureen O'Hara, and Roddy McDowall, with a score by Alfred Newman. It tells the story of Huw Morgan, the youngest son of a mining family in the Welsh village of Cwm Rhondda during the Victorian era. Through his eyes, we see such events as his brother Ivor's wedding, the consequences of his sister Angharad's chaste romance with preacher Mr. Gruffydd (as well as her loveless and failed marriage into the mine owner's family), and a miner's strike in his town.

The film was a great financial success and later won five Oscars, including one of the most (in)famous examples of the Award Snub backlash: it won for Best Picture in 1942, which doesn't seem that much of a surprise, since it was well-received at its time, and still maintains a good reputation among film buffs. The problem? Also up for Best Picture in 1942 was a little picture by a novice director called Citizen Kane, widely regarded as one of the greatest films — if not the greatest film — ever made; and another one you might possibly have heard of called The Maltese Falcon, which virtually codified the entire genre of Film Noir. As a result, Valley is best known today as "that movie that won Best Picture but maybe shouldn't have". In 1990, it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

This novel and film provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: In the book, Huw had three sisters named Angharad, Ceridwen, and Olwen; but in the film adaptation, Angharad was the only daughter in the family.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Angharad uses Jesus' words to the sinful women when she protests the elders' condemnation of an unwed mother: "Go now and sin no more."
  • As You Know: "Mr. Evans! The mine owner himself!"
  • Bookends: The scenes in the film both following mine accidents, where Gwillym cradles his son Ivor's dead body on the elevator, and where Huw similarly cradles his father's dead body on the same elevator.
  • Big Brother Instinct: When Huw's older brothers saw he he was beaten up by Mr. Jones they volunteered to have a word with Jonas.
  • Boxing Lesson: To deal with the bullying Huw is getting — he's the poor kid at an upper-class school — his father gets boxing champion Dai Bando to teach Huw how to box. Huw's father also promises to pay Huw a certain amount for each bruise and black eye he comes home with.
  • Child Prodigy: Huw's surprisingly smart and mature for his age. His academic ability set him apart from his elder brothers and enabled him to go to school. He even got a graduation certificate and made honors within a few months of schooling. Not bad for one of the youngest children in the Morgan family.
  • Coming of Age: Huw grows up quite a bit over the course of the movie.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: After Huw comes back home with a bloody face from being beaten at school, he claims he "fell down on the mountain." Nobody believes it.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Once Huw proves himself to be a decent fighter against one of the boys who picked on him before, he earns his classmates’ deep respect.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: When the rescuers bring up Huw's father on the shaft elevator. Maybe a Pietà Plagiarism.
  • Downer Ending: An ending that was unusually bleak for Hollywood films of the day. Huw's father is killed in the mine. His brothers have scattered off around the world due to the lack of good jobs in Wales. Mr. Gruffyd and Angharad don't get together — in fact, Mr. Gruffyd leaves the town, disgusted with the small-minded people in his congregation. And in the Framing Device, when Huw is leaving the valley as an old man, it's been spoiled and befouled by the pollution of coal mining. The last line is "How green was my valley then."
  • Evil Is Petty: The Evans's housekeeper Mrs. Nicholas starts the malicious rumors about Angarhad and Mr. Gruffyd, simply because she doesn't like serving the lower-class Angarhad.
  • Gossipy Hens: The old ladies, starting with the maid, who spread rumors of Angarhad's love for Mr. Gruffyd throughout the town.
  • Growing Up Sucks: In that you have to leave school behind and take up adult responsibilities.
  • Handicapped Badass: Dai Bando the blind ex-boxer. He teaches Huw to box, delivers a well-deserved beating to Mr. Jonas, and is the first to volunteer for a dangerous mine rescue.
  • Holier Than Thou: The deacons, led by Parry, seem far more interested in rooting out sinners to publicly condemn than shepherding the flock.
  • Hot for Preacher: Angharad and Mr. Grufydd.
  • Innocence Lost: Huw's growing up includes half his family driven away for their pro-union activities, his sister marrying a man she doesn't love, being forced by circumstances to take a job with the coal mine, his town elders driving away the good priest who mentored Huw, and the death of his father in a mining accident. By the end of the movie and novel, his green valley is no more. All that remains are the memories of his loved ones.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: The Sadist Teacher reacts to Huw's arrival by not addressing him and telling the rest of the class "what a dirty little sweep it is" and then "they expect me to make a scholar of it" when Huw says he's from the miner's town.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After Mr. Jonas canes Huw to the point of fainting for boxing in the schoolyard, Dai Bando drops into the school to demonstrate proper technique.
  • Mama Bear: Beth Morgan. When striking miners threaten Gwillym for his opposition to the strike, she crashes a strikers' meeting and threatens to kill anyone who harms her husband with her bare hands. And it's very clear she's not bluffing.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: In the original book, Gwilym and Beth Morgan had six sons (Ivor, Ianto, Davy, Owen, Gwilym Jr., and Huw), and three daughters (Angharad, Ceridwen, and Olwen). Although Ceridwen and Olwen get Adapted Out in the film adapation, the trope still applies.
  • Nostalgic Narrator: Huw Morgan.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: After a mining accident, when any of the elevator cars are empty...
  • Offhand Backhand: Dai Bando renders Mr. Jonas unconscious with some "innocent" gesticulating as he lectures about Marquis of Queensbury rules.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: While the characters in the film are Welsh, cast members who were from John Ford's stock company use their native Irish accents. And Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian native, uses his own natural accent.
  • Precision F-Strike: Beth Morgan has a couple of 1941-style moments. First, she begins her "Reason You Suck" Speech to the striking miners with, "I am Beth Morgan, as you damn well know!" Later, after Ivor is killed just before his child's birth, she questions God's will. When Gwillym warns her about incurring God's wrath, she answers, "To Hell with the wrath!"
  • Precocious Crush: Huw is instantly smitten with Bronwyn.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: Mr. Gruffydd's last sermon to his congregation, who are driving him out due to groundless rumors. He strongly criticizes them for hypocritically calling down God's vengeance, while forgetting God's love. Sadly, it seems like his words don't take. note 
  • Sadist Teacher: Mr. Jonas, who looks down on Huw as a miner's son and beats him unconscious.
  • Scenery Porn: It is a John Ford movie, after all. And the film did win the Oscar for Best Cinematography (Black and White).
  • Servile Snarker: The Evanses’ housekeeper, who doesn’t even try to conceal her contempt for her employers.
  • Slice of Life: A portrait of life in a small Welsh mining town and how poverty breaks families apart.
  • Tempting Fate: Gwillym declares that if the congregation goes ahead with their condemnation of Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd, he'd never set foot in the church again. They do, and he doesn't. He's mortally injured in a mine explosion that night.
  • Title Drop: Huw's last line of narration.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Mr. Gruffyd is allowed to marry as a Presbyterian, but has resolved not to because he doesn't want to subject someone he loves to a life of poverty.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Huw's sentimental narration contrasts pretty strongly with what the film actually depicts: The disintegration of the family unit, and the end of the way of life that had sustained the town for years.