Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Time, Memory, and Eternity in "How Green was my Valley"

Time, Memory, and Eternity in “How Green was my Valley”

I cannot remember the first time that I saw “How Green was my Valley.” The story of the Morgan family seems to have always been present in my life.

I remember watching it with my Grandfather who, although German and not Welsh, remembers fondly the time when Germans and Welshmen lived peacefully together in his own valley in Pennsylvania, speaking their languages and singing their hymns, when now there is little left besides last names to indicate that these two great cultures once thrived there. My Grandfather would put anything Welsh on television to remind him of people he had known as a child.

And it is appropriate that my Grandfather should love this movie for this reason, for this is at the very heart of the story.

"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. I am leaving behind me 50 years of memory. Memory. Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed, and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago -- of men and women long since dead. Yet who shall say what is real and what is not? Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears? No. And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind.”

~Huw Morgan, from “How Green was my Valley”

At first this might seem to be naught but sentimentality, but in truth there is naught of sentimentality in it. Things that were are as real as the things that are, and that the goodness of the past is still real, even if it is no longer present to us. We live within time, but for God, who is eternal, all times are now. Why then should we ever presume to think that our now is more real than the now of a Welsh boy a hundred years before our time?

More than Nostalgia

When Huw Morgan closes his eyes on his valley “as it is now” and sees it again as it was when he was a child, he is looking from one reality to another reality. The now of this part of his childhood was a better time for the valley of Cwm Rhondda, and it is only by returning to this previous reality that he can show us, who were not part of it, how good it was, and it is only by knowing how good it was that we can truly understand how much was lost. 

I submit the unpopular idea that sometimes it is only through “escaping” into the past that we can truly see the present for what it is. Sometimes “escaping” into the past is not choosing the easy way. It is hard to look at a devastated valley. It is even harder to look at a devastated valley when you know how green it was before.

The Green Valley

Huw Morgan paints for us a picture of goodness: his beautiful valley; his father Gwilym Morgan, his mother Beth Morgan, and their good and happy marriage; his sister Anghared; his five grown brothers Ianto, Owen, Davy, young Gwilym, and Ivor; his sister-in-law Bronwyn; his new pastor Mr. Gruffydd; his chapel; and his home. The first major event of the story is the goodness of Ivor and Bronwyn’s wedding, presided over by Mr. Gruffydd, and with the congregation singing “Calon Lan” (“Pure of Heart”) for the wedding march.

Nostalgia, looking back on something fondly, is not a bad thing, but what we have here is something much deeper. Huw makes the story of his family present to us. Anyone from the Judeo-Christian tradition should know that we do not simply believe in things past, but that we believe in the presence of things “past,” such as the Passover and the death and resurrection of Christ. Why else would we have readings of the scriptures? As my pastor has often said, “Wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Christ, there is the upper room, there is Calvary, there is the Resurrection.” In the telling of all stories, something is made present to us.

As Huw tells the story of his family, many events are made present to us, and they are not all good. Many of them are bad--senselessly bad in some cases. There is a great deal of suffering in this story, but the goodness of the characters endures.

Goodness is in the Foreground

Most stories in our fallen world contain some degree of struggle between good and evil. This film won the Oscar for best picture, triumphing over Orson Wells’ movie “Citizen Cane,” which many people regard as the greatest movie ever made--in technical terms, that is. Yet “How Green was my Valley” surpasses “Citizen Cane” in its great humanity and in its transcendence. “Citizen Cane” is about an empty, dark life. There is no emptiness in the characters of “How Green was my Valley.” There is Gwilym Morgan, who is wise, and yet suspects no evil, because his main blindness is that he believes in the goodness of other men, and is willing to trust the mine owners. There is Beth Morgan, the kindhearted woman who goes through the snow and ice to the meeting of the miners to threaten any man who harms her husband, there are the same miners who rescue her
and little Huw and come and sing for her in the springtime when she is recovered. There is the noble, clear-minded pastor Mr. Gruffydd, who worked in a coal mine himself while being educated at Cardiff. Even the comic retired, half blind boxer Dai Bando becomes a hero at the end. The evil of the heartless mine owners, which through various ways destroys the lives of all these characters, is kept at the background of the story, and the goodness of the characters is at the foreground.

The Film

The movie was based on a very well-written novel of the same name by the Welsh author Richard Llewellyn.
The film moves very quickly to the heart of Richard Llewellyn’s book, often capturing in the medium of film the author’s ideas better than the author himself was able to do in the medium of literature, which is quite impressive, given that Richard Llewellyn was a master of making people and scenes come to life through the written word. The  medium of film makes use of narration, dialogue, images, and music, particularly the songs and hymns of the Welsh people, which are used throughout. In the wedding scene of Huw’s older brother Ivor and Bronwyn you can hear the congregation burst into song (in full harmony) as soon as the bride enters. Because the story follows the narration of Huw, it seems episodic at first, but actually each scene in the film builds toward the climax. Donald Crisp, the actor who plays Huw’s father Gwilym Morgan, and Sarah Allgood, the actress who plays his mother Beth Morgan, were very plain, ordinary looking people, cast for their great acting ability. The direction of the movie (done by John Ford) is flawless, but also completely unpretentious.

If you have never seen “How Green was my Valley,” I urge you to do so before you continue reading, because from this point on, I will be discussing the ending, which is one of the most unusual in film.

Who is for Gwilym Morgan?

I have already said that this is not a nostalgic or sentimental movie. By the end of the movie, Ivor Morgan has died in the mines, leaving Bronwyn a widow, the other four sons have been forced to leave the country in search of work, Anghared is caught in an unhappy marriage to the son of the mine owner, and Mr. Gruffydd must leave the valley, because of an untrue rumor that he and Anghared were going to run away together. As Mr. Gruffydd is preparing to leave, he gives Huw a pocket watch that his own father had given him when he became a minister. He tell Huw to keep it, because it marked time that they had spent together.

And then the siren from the mine sounds. All the villagers rush to the mine. Beth Morgan, Bronwyn, and Anghared ask for Gwilym Morgan, but he is not there. He is trapped in one of the lower levels.

“Who is for Gwilym Morgan?” asks Mr. Gruffydd. “I, for one,” replies Dai Bando, the half-blind retired boxer who was a half comic character until this point. It is Mr. Gruffydd, Dai Bando, and Huw who go deep down into the mine. Then you hear Huw call “Dada! Dada!” through the empty, partly filled with water tunnels. Huw finds his father barely alive, crushed under a rock, and after recognizing his son, Gwilym Morgan dies.


After Gwilym Morgan dies, he appears to his wife in the presence of God. Before she even sees her husband’s dead body, Beth says, “He came to me just now, him and Ivor with him, and he spoke to me of the glory that he saw there.” It is not only in Huw’s memory that his father lives, but also in the presence of God.

The Beginning and the End

When the mine elevator is drawn up, we see Huw with his father’s body lying in his lap.

And then something happens which never happens in film. The story returns to the beginning, and we see Beth Morgan serving dinner to her family, Bronwyn entering the valley for the first time, Mr. Gruffydd with Huw, Anghared when she was a happy young girl, all five of Huw’s brothers, Ianto, Davy, Owen, young Gwilym, and Ivor, together, and finally Huw and his father coming over the ridge as they did in the beginning.

What does this mean? It means that goodness has triumphed, for the goodness of these people can never be undone. Its reality cannot be taken away by anything, not even by death.

Some day we know that there will be a new Heaven and a new earth, and that we shall live even more real in flesh as Huw’s father did to him in memory. Goodness will endure, all times shall be made now, and all things shall be made new.