John Ford’s masterpiece of human drama How Green Was My Valley (1941) is among the most decorated motion pictures of the 20th century. The film is an episodic narrative of a family unit in a Welsh coal mining community structured as a series of memories recollected by a narrator living in an indeterminate future, where the verdant hills and rustic homes of the past have fallen into dilapidation and ecological depletion. Almost the entire runtime consists of reenacted memories set in the late Victorian era, which is a significant historical moment as it was the epoch of industrialization, a time in which coal production and labor relations were dramatically reorganized. We experience the degradation of the land and the community through Huw, the youngest in the Morgan family, who works in the coal mines along with the rest of his family and whose impartial naivety allows for a neutral reading of the developments of the story. Through Huw, we are able to witness the schisms that threaten to dismantle the community and the fragmentation of the family caused by the industrialization of the titular valley.
The valley we are introduced to is one of pastoral conviviality in which every man is employed at the coal mine and each is paid enough to support themself and their families. The first major disruption comes with the closure of a nearby ironworks, which creates a labor surplus and a wage reduction. The incandescent younger men form a union and begin a wildcat strike against the coal mines, and times of plenty become times of want. The former solidarity of the workers unravels from the idleness and hunger, with the Morgan household attacked on account of the family patriarch, Mr. Morgan, opposing the strike. Mr. Morgan, who insists that the mine management will honor the exchange of fair labor for decent wages, cannot accept that the industrialists who staff the colliery prioritize profit margins over the livelihood of the miners; the generational impasse surrounding this notion penetrates the family unit, and the four sons of Mr. Morgan leave home. Though the strike is eventually resolved, it is through the compromise of partial employment, as the narrator laments:
“There were too many now for the jobs open, and some learned that never again would there be work for them in their own valley.”
The labor crisis continues, and the family incurs its first major loss. One of the elder sons, Owen, who could no longer find a way to make a living in the land he called home, immigrates to America in search of greener pastures, and the Morgan family grows irreversibly smaller. The sole daughter of the family, Angharad, who possesses a deep and unshakable love for the town preacher Mr. Grufydd, must shelve that passion and make a practical marriage to the bourgeois Mr. Evans, which offers her the economic stability that could not be provided to her in her home valley, and she too departs. Two other sons, Ianto and Gwilym, are discharged from the colliery to provide employment for more desperate men willing to work for slimmer wages and relocate elsewhere in the country seeking work. The vignettes of the perseverant Morgan family slip from a breezy recollection of fond memories to a sobering, distinctive pattern of loss as the movie progresses.
Huw witnesses the breakdown of a way of life that spanned several generations and families who called that valley home. The virtues of work for fair wage and ennobled labor become atavisms of a sentimental past, and the scourge of industrialism levels a heritage in a single generation. How Green Was My Valley is among the first films to come from the Hollywood Production Model that outright articulates the pressures of industrialization to not just alter present conditions but mythologize the past: turning community, familial unity, and ecological abundance into distant ideals to be fondly remembered but never again experienced. Hence My Valley operates as a reminder of what may have been lost and what can be regained, an urgent appeal towards humanity for humanity.