How Green Was My Valley

film stillIn 1939 when How Green Was My Valley was published in England, it sold fifty thousand copies within four months. When this novel by an unknown Richard LLewellyn appeared in the US, it went through fifteen printings and sold nearly 200,000 copies in 1940. It has remained in print ever since.The book is a sprawling tale of three generations of a Welsh colliery family, at once a sentimental novel about the lives of the Morgans and also the story of coal mining in the Rhondda Valley. On the surface a domestic chronicle of the family’s courting and cooking, their singing and schooling, the novel critically examines the transformation of the colliery in which the Morgan men work and depicts their response to these changes.

Coal mined in the Rhondda, known as ‘dry steam coal,’ had become the fuel of the British Navy and demand for it increased dramatically during the 19th century. The number of mines in the Valley grew, as did the number of miners: by the early 20th century, twenty-one thousand miners lived and worked within a single square mile. Working conditions worsened, averaging an injury every other minute and a fatality every six hours. And the paternalism of individual mine operators gave way to coordinated exploitation by the Cambrian Combine, an employers network which introduced a new wage system paying far below a living wage.

In 1910, 800 miners left the pit to protest these changes; they were soon joined by twelve thousand strikers and a riot broke out in Tonypandy. British Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered in both police and army, the first time troops were deployed to quell a labor uprising. In response thirty thousand miners struck, shut down the entire Rhondda coalfield and, within months, achieved a minimum wage.

This story is traced in the novel, as Gwilym Morgan clings to a tradition of personal trust and negotiation with mine-owner Evans, while his sons become leaders of an effort to organize the miners into a union. In the novel even little Huw, recovering from frostbite, helps his brothers, writing letters for the union. The novel’s final scenes show an adult Huw and his father attempting, despite rampaging strikers, to guard the pumps and save the mine from flooding.

When Twentieth Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck bought the movie rights to How Green Was My Valley, he had in mind an epic film to rival Gone With The Wind. It would be four hours long; William Wyler would direct it and Victor Mature would play the main character, Huw, as an adult. But Zanuck was unhappy with the portrayal of the mine owners in the initial studio script which adhered closely to the novel’s account of union organizing and the strike: “I’ll be damned if I want to go around making the employer class out-and-out villains in this day and age.”

Zanuck’s defense of employers reflected the hostility of Hollywood producers toward the efforts of screen writers to form a union after Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act authorized their organization. Outraged by the betrayal of his writers, whom he considered creative artists rather than cultural workers, Zanuck threatened that, ‘If those guys set up a picket line and try to shut down my studio, I’ll mount a machine gun on the roof and mow them down.”

Surprisingly, Zanuck hired Philip Dunne, an active member and recent officer of the Screen Writers Guild, to write the screenplay for How Green Was My Valley. Though clearly supportive of unions, Dunne found the studio script a “long, turgid and ugly” account of “an equally long, turgid and ugly strike,” whose dialogue consisted of “speeches and diatribes, pro- and anti-labor.”

Indeed, Dunne was puzzled that Zanuck had bought the rights to this story until, reading Llewellyn attentively, he discovered in the novel “warmth, love, nobility, and earthy humor… the story of a family — strong, proud, loving and self-reliant — the kind of story that Victorian moralists… always loved.” And this is the story that Dunne developed, emphasizing the novel’s sentimentality rather than labor militancy. When his first screenplay was rejected by Zanuck as too long, Dunne rewrote the script several times, collaborating closely with Wyler.

Still, the New York office refused to finance the proposed film and it was shelved until Zanuck convinced them that he could make the movie with director John Ford for under a million dollars. Part of the savings would come from shooting the film in California (with England at war, making it on location in Wales was impossible) and photographing in black and white (the hills of Malibu simply could not be made to appear green). But it would also cost less to film the now radically shortened script which not only downplayed the labor theme but, by leaving out the mature Huw and focusing only on young Huw (played by refugee child actor Roddy McDowell), entirely eliminated the novel’s culminating strike.

Released in the fall of 1941, How Green Was My Valley was a box office and critical success,winning five Oscars. It beat out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Sergeant York for best picture and won awards for director Ford, supporting actor Donald Crisp, cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, and the film’s team of art directors and decorators. The movie also received five other nominations, including Philip Dunne for best adapted screenplay.

An embittered Dunne blamed New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther for his Oscar miss. In a generally positive assessment of How Green Was My Valley, Crowther had noted that the film fails “to achieve a clear dramatic definition and never comes across with forceful compelling impact. In spite of its brilliant detail and its exquisite feeling for plain, affectionate people,” he complained, the film “never forms a concrete pattern of their lives.” In asserting that the screenplay “too faithfully preserved the spirit of the novel” and discarded “opportunities for dramatic intensity,” Crowther put his finger precisely on Dunne’s choice of sentiment over militancy. Absent the organizing drive and the strike, “the climactic episode, in which Huw’s father is killed in the mine” becomes, as Crowther observed “nothing more than a tragic incident which brings the story to a close.”

In fairness you may ask whether Dunne (or any screenwriter) could have balanced the sentimental and labor elements of Llewellyn’s novel in a coherent two-hour film that was neither for nor against unions, especially at a moment when writers and producers were engaged in their own labor struggle. Whatever your answer, you can enjoy How Green Was My Valley, the one film chosen by John Ford from his entire body of work to be shown at the Screen Directors Guild 1972 tribute to him.

This introduction was presented by Jon Garlock at a screening of How Green Was My Valley on 25 September 2009.

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About Jon Garlock

Jon Garlock chairs the Education Committee of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council. He coordinates an annual Labor Film Series, now in its 26th year, presented at the International Museum of Film and Photography at George Eastman House. He has published on 19th century US and local labor history, co-directing a video and developing teaching materials on Rochester’s unions.