(Originally published August 3, 2012)
The soft-spoken narrator of this 1941 Best Picture Winner soothes the soul with his gentle recollections of growing up in Wales. I am sure this movie sailed to success because of its pastoral contrast to the raging World War, but also because viewers could relate to the nostalgia that comes with the changing times.
Although the film covers conflicts of its own, it surrounds viewers with beautiful scenery and sweeps us far away from troubles at home. And, if you like joyful drunken Welsh singing, then this is definitely the film for you.
From the perspective of adulthood, our narrator takes us back to his home valley in Wales, just as the coal mining industry begins to emerge. Huw Morgan is the youngest, with four older brothers and an older sister. He shows us happy and humorous memories: his father and brothers bathing in the backyard, scrubbing coal dust and laughing; his oldest brother’s wedding; the town choir singing for the Queen. Huw’s mother is a comedy all by herself, spitfire, serious, and not to be messed with, but when she smiles, she lights up her household and the screen.
He takes us to his first day of school which is both frightening and hilarious. The students and the teacher leave Huw with a bloody nose and bloody back, but Mr. Morgan calls upon his friend the prizefighter and justice is served with grace and humor.
As time passes, the valley grows less green. Huw’s older brothers advocate for unions and the town retaliates. His sister marries a man she does not love. Later, rumors tear through the valley. The family is spread throughout the world and the coal mine is wrought with disaster.
This is a story of family and home, love and duty, justice and loyalty, sin and God’s love. I was pleasantly surprised that the Academy chose a film with such strong overtones of Christianity. Another of the main characters is the town preacher, a loveable, intelligent man who considers himself no more righteous than his congregation. However, a few in his congregation consider themselves sinless and imbued with the right to condemn everything from adultery to unionizing. Mr. Gryffodd unflinchingly chastises these folk as the hypocrites they are: tearing their neighbors apart and showing up to chapel each Sunday only out of superstition.
The themes of socioeconomic change, retribution, politics, and dispersing family mirror the realities of World War. Life is hard, wrought with injustice, death, and emotional pain out of our control. But the memories of humor, happiness, and closeness help us make sense of it all. We sin and hurt others, but as Mr. Griffodd preaches, God loves us all and we live under His Grace. This film speaks to the heart and soul of anyone who has ever lived in a family, navigated the seasons of growing up and yearned for the previous one, thought about God’s goodness, seen beloved places deteriorate, or reveled in spontaneous laughter.