The magic of a John Ford film is timeless, especially when we observe how some of his masterpieces such as The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath are still studied by students, aspiring filmmakers as well as those who have a general interest in the history of cinema. His works have, in turn, inspired other geniuses like Akira Kurosawa who claimed that he learnt everything there is to learn about visual composition from Ford’s camerawork.
Throughout his career, Ford was applauded for the consistency of his artistic vision and the visual narratives in his films were always spectacular. The same can be said for his 1941 drama How Green Was My Valley which was named among the 20 most beautifully shot films of all time by the American Society of Cinematographers, thanks to the brilliant contributions of celebrated cinematographer Arthur C. Miller.
However, eighty years later, How Green Was My Valley has become a curious artefact whose intentions have inevitably morphed over time. Based on a novel by Richard Llewellyn, who falsely claimed that he was born in Wales, Ford’s film was mostly remembered for all the Academy Awards it won at the time. Newer audiences, however, are labelling it as a blatant act of cultural appropriation.
Although the film revolves around the quasi-Dickensian conditions of a mining community in South Wales, it was shot in Southern California by an American filmmaker who built his artistic investigations on the frameworks laid down by a British novelist. In addition, most of the actors who are supposed to be the residents of a Welsh mining town were actually either Irish or British or Americans with unrecognisable accents.
If anything, How Green Was My Valley is the perfect example of the ways in which Hollywood routinely stripped the essence from global concerns and repackaged them into consumable bits for American audiences. That’s exactly why most audiences who have fond experiences of watching this particular Ford film always justify it by claiming that it made them tear up and that there’s a certain nostalgia involved.
Thankfully, these transgressions synthesise with the legacy of How Green Was My Valley and contribute to something larger than itself because it was made by someone as skilled as John Ford. Shifting quickly but gracefully from one topic to another, ranging from unionisation and class conflicts to ecocriticism and societal oppression, Ford manages to construct a tender coming-of-age story that asks questions about love, life, family, loss and suffering without saying anything that is devoid of sentimentality, anything meaningful.