The movie tells of the Morgans, a hard-working Welsh mining family living in the heart of the South Wales Valleys during the 19th century. The story chronicles life in the South Wales coalfields, the loss of that way of life and its effects on the family. The fictional village in the movie is based on Gilfach Goch; Llewellyn spent many summers there visiting his grandfather, and it served as the inspiration for the novel. In 1990, the movie was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The Academy Film Archive preserved How Green Was My Valley during 1998.
The movie begins with a monologue by an older Huw Morgan (voice by Irving Pichel): "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." The valley and its villages are now blackened by the coal mines that fill the area.
A young Huw (Roddy McDowall), the youngest child of Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), walks home with his father to meet his mother, Beth (Sara Allgood). His older brothers, Ianto (John Loder), Ivor (Patric Knowles), Davy (Richard Fraser), Gwilym Jr., and Owen all work in the coal mines with their father, while sister Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) keeps house with their mother. Huw's childhood is idyllic, the town, not yet overrun with mining spoil, is beautiful, and the household is warm and loving. Huw is smitten on meeting Bronwyn (Anna Lee), a girl engaged to be married to his oldest brother, Ivor (Patric Knowles). At the boisterous wedding party Angharad meets the new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), and there is an obvious mutual attraction.
Trouble begins when the mine owner decreases wages, and the miners strike in protest. Gwilym's attempt to mediate by not endorsing a strike estranges him from the other miners as well as his older sons, who quit the house. Beth interrupts a late night meeting of the strikers, threatening to kill anyone who harms her husband. While returning home, crossing the fields in a snowstorm in the dark, Beth falls into the river. Huw dives in to save her with the help of the townspeople, and temporarily loses the use of his legs. He recovers with the help of Mr. Gruffydd, which further endears him to Angharad.
The strike is eventually settled, and Gwilym and his sons reconcile, yet many miners have lost their jobs. Angharad is courted by the mine owner's son, Iestyn Evans (Marten Lamont), though she loves Mr. Gruffydd. Mr. Gruffydd loves her too, to the malicious delight of the gossipy townswomen, but cannot bear to subject her to an impoverished churchman's life. Angharad submits to a loveless marriage to Evans, and they relocate out of the country.
Huw begins school at a nearby village. Abused by other boys, he is taught to fight by boxer Dai Bando (Rhys Williams) and his crony, Cyfartha (Barry Fitzgerald). After a beating by the cruel teacher Mr. Jonas (Morton Lowry), Dai Bando avenges Huw with an impromptu boxing display on Mr. Jonas to the delight of his pupils.
On the day that Bronwyn gives birth to their child, Ivor is killed in a mine accident. Later, two of Morgan's sons are dismissed in favour of less experienced, cheaper labourers. With no job prospects, they leave to seek their fortunes abroad. Huw is awarded a scholarship to university, but to his father's dismay he refuses it to work in the mines. He relocates in with Bronwyn to help provide for her and her child.
When Angharad returns without her husband, vicious gossip spreads through the town of an impending divorce. Mr. Gruffydd is denounced by the church deacons, and after condemning the town's small-mindedness, he decides to leave.
Just then, the alarm whistle sounds, signalling another mine disaster. Several men are injured, and Gwilym and others are trapped in a cave-in. Young Huw, Mr. Gruffydd, and Dai Bando descend with others for a rescue attempt. Gwilym and his son are briefly re-united before he succumbs to his injuries. Huw rides the lift to the surface cradling his father's body, his coal-blackened face devoid of youthful innocence.
Narration by an older Huw recalls, "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." The movie ends with a montage of family vignettes showing Huw with his father and mother, his brothers and sister.
William Wyler, the original director, saw the screen test of McDowall and chose him for the part. Wyler was replaced by John Ford. Fox wanted to shoot the movie in Wales in Technicolor, but events in Europe during World War II made this impossible. Instead, Ford had the studio build an 80-acre authentic replica of a Welsh mining town at Brent's Crags (subsequently Crags Country Club) in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu, California.
The cast had only one Welsh actor, Rhys Williams, in a minor role.
How Green Was My Valley maintains a 90% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes; the site's consensus write-up is, "Though it perhaps strays into overly maudlin territory, this working-class drama is saved by a solid cast and director John Ford's unmistakeable style." Tim Dirks of Filmsite.org lauded the film as "one of John Ford's masterpieces of sentimental human drama."
While the opinion among the Academy Awards committee that it was 1941's best picture has been left behind by modern film criticism, How Green Was My Valley continues to be well received in its own right, and in 1990 was added to the American National Film Registry.It is also well known for being Academy Award winning actor and director Clint Eastwood's favorite movie.Winners
Best Picture - Darryl F. Zanuck
Best Director - John Ford
Best Supporting Actor - Donald Crisp
Best Black-and-White Cinematography - Arthur Charles Miller
Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Interior Decoration - Richard Day, Nathan H. Juran and Thomas Little
Best Adapted Screenplay - Philip Dunne
Best Supporting Actress - Sara Allgood
Best Film Editing - James B. Clark
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture - Alfred Newman
Best Recording Sound - Edmund H. Hansen
New York Film Critics Circle Awards: NYFCC Award; Best Director, John Ford; 1941.
Silver Condor Award for Best Foreign Film at the 1943 Argentine Film Critics Association Awards in Argentina, John Ford, USA; 1943.
1990—National Film Registry.
American Film Institute Lists
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"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." - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - Nominated
How Green Was My Valley was adapted as a radio play on the March 22, 1942 broadcast of the Ford Theatre, with Sara Allgood, Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowell, Maureen O'Hara and Walter Pidgeon.
It was also adapted on three broadcasts of Lux Radio Theater: on September 21, 1942, with Allgood, Crisp, O'Hara, McDowell and Pidgeon; on March 31, 1947, with Crisp and David Niven; and on September 28, 1954, with Crisp and Donna Reed.
A Broadway musical adaptation, entitled A Time for Singing, produced by Alexander H. Cohen, opened at the Broadway Theatre on May 21, 1966. The music was by John Morris; book and lyrics by Morris and Gerald Freedman, who also served as the director. Cast included Laurence Naismith as Gwillym, Tessie O'Shea as Beth Morgan, Shani Wallis as Angharad and Frank Griso as Huw.