Before 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, John Ford had only utilized vocal narration one time—in his previous film, Tobacco Road. However, while that narration merely opened the film, in Valley, Ford lays in the narration throughout. In doing so, he adds an extra layer of complexity to a film that would likely be merely trite and overly sentimental without it. In the voice over by an older Huw Morgan, a mere child at the time of the events on screen, Huw admits that he is primarily interested in his happy memories of that time, rather than appreciating the full weight of how the passing of time has eroded the firm beauty of the village and its people.
Yet Huw’s admission in light of the disintegration of the Morgan family and the village as a whole creates a dramatic tension that forces reflection on all sides: the family and village embrace of tradition, the extreme reaction of the village youth who push for labor unions and buck the advice of their elders, and finally, Huw’s own sunny memories of the past. With all these competing perspectives, social tensions boil over and the film then poses a difficult question: How does one respond to the inevitable changes that modern society brings? Do you stick with the deeply rooted tradition that got you there? Do you push for radical change in the name of justice? Do you pragmatically slog through it and decide to remember the good times?
Huw’s father prefers to stick with certain principles he has grown up with: sons accept the opinion of their fathers without argument, a man should be paid fairly for an honest day’s work, and that those with opportunities for a better life should take them. However, most of his eldest sons take a second and opposing view: they are distrustful of parental authority, they set themselves against the powers that be in the name of justice, and they place little stock in tradition. Four of the five older Morgan boys plan to make their own way despite their father’s protestations. They eventually leave the valley and the life drains out of it. Who’s at fault here—is it the father’s blind adherence to tradition or the son’s vigor and lack of respect that speeds up the destruction? Or is it something else completely?
Huw’s position offers the opportunity of a third way. He sits between his father and brothers, yet he is given one distinct advantage—an education. With it, he possesses a legitimate way out of the village, one that doesn’t condemn him to a life (and death) in the mines like his eldest brother and father. Neither does it force him to leave the village harboring the distrust and rebellion of his other brothers. He can better his position in the future while remaining closely aligned with the tradition and honor of his father.
The tragedy of Huw’s ultimate choice allows the viewer to see clearly the dual importance of honoring tradition at the core of one’s being while adjusting to the cultural changes that rumble through our modern world. Huw is in this sense an opposing figure to Ford’s Young Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln combines the virtues learned in his past with the promise he sees in his quickly advancing future, Huw as a young boy has not the presence of mind to make such a transition. The world as he sees it is too simple, leaving him only two choices—stay and be like his father, or go and reject his family heritage. Of course, Huw misses the middle ground, and in doing so, he misses the way to navigate the two opposing positions. He compensates by embracing a false and simplistic view of the past and giving up the cause of justice. Though his view of his life in the village is framed by happiness, it remains an utter tragedy.