The Hero’s Journey in “How Green is My Valley”

The film is based on the 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, which presents the memoirs of the narrator, Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), looking back to his time (in the late 1800s) as a boy in a South Wales mining town. We learn that in the present day, the mine has become so big and its pollution so extreme that the beauty of the valley has been eclipsed. However, during the years of Huw’s youth, it was still a verdant land (hence, the title). Llewellyn wrote three sequels to How Green Was My ValleyUp into the Singing Mountain and Down Where the Moon is Small, published in 1960 and 1966 respectively, detail Huw’s emigration and life in Argentina. Green, Green My Valley Now, released in 1975, returned the character to Wales.

Most of the adventures happen around Huw, impacting him tangentially. His brother, Ivor (Patric Knowles), marries the pretty Bronwyn (Anna Lee), upon whom Huw develops a crush. When Ivor is killed in a mining accident and Bronwyn is widowed, Huw does what he can to provide support and encouragement to the young woman. Huw’s sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), falls in love with the local minister, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), but she marries another man instead. When work becomes scarce and wages are cut, Huw’s mother (Sara Allgood) and father (Donald Crisp) watch in sadness as their surviving sons leave Wales for more fertile pastures.

The best moments of the film occur at the beginning as the narrator’s voice evokes a powerful sense of days gone by, of times that have passed and will not come again. There’s a universality to this – we all look back at our childhoods through rose-tinted glasses and, even if the places where we spent our formative years still exist, the movement of progress has changed them in ways that are often tangible. The poignancy of this realization, which everyone comes to at some point, overlays the opening sequence of How Green Was My Valley. As we get into the story, however, it becomes generic with its scattershot depiction of various memorable incidents from Huw’s youth. As it has been assembled, How Green Was My Valley feels more like a collection of short stories than the grand melodrama it was intended to be. There are times when characters disappear for lengthy stretches while other tales play out. This form of narrative works better in books than movies.

How Green Was My Valley is about as unhappy a story as one can imagine, although presenting it through the viewpoint of a child dulls the tragic edges somewhat. Still, it’s about death, loss, and a lack of fulfillment. The first fragmentation happens early when Mr. Morgan breaks with his adult sons regarding labor relations – he supports the mine’s ownership; they want to strike. This foreshadows the manner in which the children are scattered across the world – from the grave to North America to Australia – by the end of the movie. The key word in the title is “was.” This town has seen its best days.

The relationship between Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd consumes a fair amount of screen time, and is the film’s saddest element. This is a classic tale of unfulfilled love – these two have deep, strong feelings for each other, but circumstances conspire to keep them apart. Angharad marries the son of the mine owner because it is a financially advantageous match, and Mr. Gruffydd supports it because he believes his sacrifice will result in a more comfortable life for her. When the marriage disintegrates and she returns to the village, rumors of a liaison between her and the preacher fuel the scandal-mongers’ gossip, although neither Angharad nor Mr. Gruffydd has acted improperly. Disheartened, he departs.