One film is a devastating study of loss – of a family destroyed, a romance interrupted and an idyllic community obliterated by industrialization and corporate greed. The other is an uplifting fantasy of a traditional community that continues to thrive by resisting modern encroachments, of a magnificent couple born out of conflict, and of a broken man who finds redemption by escaping the past and embracing the present.
The films are “How Green Was My Valley” (1941) and “The Quiet Man” (1952), and both are the work of John Ford, a director who is among the greatest artists of the 20th century.
The films have reappeared in impressive new Blu-ray editions: “How Green” from 20th Century Fox, and “The Quiet Man” from Olive Films.
Today Ford is best known for his Westerns: “Stagecoach” (1939), “My Darling Clementine” (1946), “The Searchers” (1956) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).
However, the Westerns were not the films that brought Ford honor in his own lifetime (1894-1973). In public he dismissed his Westerns as potboilers and professed to remain proudest of the literary adaptations: “The Informer” (1935), “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Quiet Man,” each of which earned him a best director Oscar.
Ford’s non-Westerns constitute the majority of his filmography, and if the landscapes they explore are not familiar, the subjects and the stylistic assurance with which Ford approaches them are as personal as anything in his work.
Based on a best-selling novel by Richard Llewellyn about growing up in a Welsh coal-mining village, “How Green Was My Valley” enjoys the dubious distinction of having beaten “Citizen Kane” for the 1941 best picture Oscar.
Most of the stylistic breakthroughs in “Kane” – few of which are native to that film – are well represented in “How Green Was My Valley,” a film full of magnificent deep-focus effects, presented both in low-ceiling interiors (as with Welles) and in outdoor vistas, as in the carefully layered planes of the sequence in which the miners file out of the colliery, where they have just learned their wages have been cut, and make their way back down the winding lanes of the hillside village.
As the workers relay the news to their waiting families, Ford makes us aware that generations of social harmony have just come to an end; class lines will be battle lines.
Strong traces of the New Deal politics of “The Grapes of Wrath” remain embedded in “How Green Was My Valley,” despite its being set in another country and, largely, another century. The connection is made stronger by the new transfer from Fox, which restores a tight grain and realist texture to portraits of Welsh miners that might have been taken by photographers of the Farm Security Administration.
The film, with a screenplay by Philip Dunne, follows a symphonic structure, developing themes across contrasting tonalities. Ford only briefly evokes the idyllic rural life about to be lost forever, a few shots, romanticized with a soft diffusion filter, of shepherds moving a flock across the crest of the valley (“How green was my valley then,” murmurs Ford’s narrator, Irving Pichel), which give way to images of a blackened hillside – one of the slag piles from the mine that will cover the valley and smother its citizens.
Where “How Green Was My Valley” is a tragedy of departure, “The Quiet Man” is a comedy of return – a return to Ireland, Ford’s ancestral home, here seen as a Technicolor dream of rolling fields and lush meadows, in precise contrast to the black-and-white slag heaps of Wales.
As the title character, Wayne is an Irish-American prizefighter returning to claim the stone cottage in which he was born, and with it his place in the tiny community of Innisfree; the interrupted romance of “How Green” is completed as Wayne woos and wins a spectacularly ill-tempered O’Hara, who must be torn away from her resentful brother (Victor McLaglen).
With its vivid color scheme of bright scarlet and emerald green “The Quiet Man” could almost be a fairy tale told to comfort a child traumatized by the serial losses of “How Green Was My Valley.”
Ford’s themes are fulfillment, fertility and renewal (it is the most erotic of Ford’s movies, with its evocation of the physical passion that draws the couple together), while the community that collapsed into suspicion and factitiousness in “Valley” here unites into a unified chorus, with an ending that even hints at an end to “the troubles.”
If you’re making a fantasy, Ford suggests, it’s best to go all the way.