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Restored By HFPA: “How Green Was My Valley” (1941)

John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley will forever be known as the film that beat Citizen Kane at the 14th Academy Awards on February 26, 1942. Perhaps it was the relentless campaign against Kane by William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper empire, but the film considered the greatest of all time only came away with one win that night – Original Screenplay for Welles and Herman Mankiewicz. How Green Was My Valley took five wins for its 10 nominations, including Best Director for Ford, the third of his four directing Oscars, a record yet unmatched today. It also won Best Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp), Best Cinematography (black and white) and Best Art Direction (black and white).

20th Century Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck bought the screen rights for Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 bestseller for $300,000 in 1939, hiring director William Wyler to direct the film which he wanted to shoot on location in Wales in Technicolor. A four-hour version was planned. It was to be Zanuck’s Gone with the Wind.

The onset of WWII changed the location shooting plans, the budget went down to $1.25 million, and the entire town (including the mines with blocks of coal shipped in) was constructed at Brent’s Crag in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu. It was based on the villages of Cerrig Ceinnen and Clyddach-cum Tawe in Wales. It cost $110,000 to construct the 80-acre set which took six months to build. The four-hour version, which included an adult Huw’s storyline (with Huw to be played by Tyrone Power), was scrapped. The script was rewritten by Philip Dunne to focus on the family and less on the social issues of the mining town where the story was set.

Wyler was replaced by Ford. (He would go on to direct The Little Foxes which was released the same year and was Oscar-nominated as well.)

The adult Huw starts the film in voiceover as he prepares to leave the village of his birth as a 50-year-old man. His face is never seen. In flashback, he tells the story from the child’s point of view. The youngest of a family of nine, with six brothers and a sister, Huw lives with his loving family in a fictional Welsh town in the late 19th century; his father and brothers are all employed by the colliery. The close family splits apart when the miners’ wages are lowered and the father does not support the ensuing strike, thinking the mine owners would do the right thing. The effects of the strike are felt by all the villagers and the family is subjected to the hostility of the desperate community and the anger of the church deacons. The sister falls in love with the village preacher but ends up marrying the mine owner’s heir. Two disastrous mine cave-ins show the brutality of the conditions under which the miners labor.


Child actor Roddy McDowall was auditioned by Wyler for the role of Huw. Zanuck was impressed enough by him to put him under contract. In Variety’s 1941 review of the film, McDowall was singled out for praise: “And, above all, there is a potential new boy star in Roddy McDowall. The youngster may prove this studio’s boy counterpart to Shirley Temple, an inspired little performer who has been in English films. He’s winsome, manly, and histrionically proficient in an upright, two-fisted manner.”

Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood won the roles of the mother and father. Both were nominated for Oscars for their roles with Crisp winning in the Best Supporting Actor category. Alexander Knox was Wyler’s choice to play the preacher, but the bigger box office name, Walter Pidgeon, was cast. Katharine Hepburn, Gene Tierney, Martha Scott and Geraldine Fitzgerald were all considered and rejected for Huw’s sister Angharad, and 20-year-old Maureen O’Hara got the part, starting a collaboration with Ford that lasted several pictures, as did Crisp and Anna Lee who plays the wife of one of the sons.


Famously, Ford shot very few takes. In an interview in 1973, he explained his way of working. “I don’t give ’em a lot of film to play with … I do cut in the camera. Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film, ‘the committee’ takes over. They start juggling scenes around and taking out this and putting in that. They can’t do it with my pictures. I cut in the camera and that’s it. There’s not a lot of film left on the floor when I’m finished.”  Principal photography for Valley took just two months.

Ford was also known to be impatient with studio interference, tough on his actors, and hated long expository dialog – he was known to rip pages out of the script that he thought were unnecessary and continue shooting the film. On this film, his set was mostly harmonious, but he did take offense when O’Hara pointed out that one of the props used was anachronous and he threw her off the set temporarily. Allgood also went up against him, complaining about the writing of a scene. Ford then set up the screenwriter to tear the scene out of the script, then he told Allgood there was nothing he could do given the writer’s lack of cooperation. (Allgood was nominated for an Oscar as well though she didn’t win.)

While Ford tells the story of how circumstances and the passage of time cause inevitable and difficult changes to a loving family, the backdrop of social justice, labor exploitation, and the destructive power of the church is very clear. As is the theme of the desecration of the environment by dirty industry. After all, the past tense in the title says it all – when Huw leaves his home for the last time never to come back, he’s leaving behind a desolate, slag-covered valley, unlike the beautiful green one he grew up in.

Richard Llewellyn wrote three sequels to the novel but none were made into films. “Up into the Singing Mountain” (1960) and “Down Where the Moon Is Small” (1966) tell of Huw’s life in Argentina where he emigrated, and “Green, Green My Valley Now” (1975) tells of his return to Wales.


Two miniseries were made based on the original book by the BBC in 1960 and 1975.

How Green Was My Valley was 20th Century Fox’s most successful film of 1941 and was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1990 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

It was restored by funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in association with The Film Foundation.