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Friday, November 9, 2007

Shafted (originally published 8/00)

Every filmmaker knows that certain settings are inherently more pregnant with dramatic possibilities than others. Not surprisingly, such settings tend to turn up on the screen with great regularity.

"Solomon and Gaenor," a recent import to American screens from the United Kingdom, illustrates the point nicely. It is a familiar tale of star-crossed lovers torn apart by religious prejudice, but the drama is further enhanced by being set in a Welsh coal mining village. By using the hardscrabble existence of the Welsh miners as a backdrop for the narrative, the level of dramatic interest is automatically ratcheted up a notch.

As you might expect, this is by no means the first time that this setting has been used as a canvas by filmmakers. Here are some earlier examples to look for on home video.

"The Citadel" (1938). American director King Vidor traveled to England to direct this adaptation of A.J. Cronin's novel for MGM's British production unit, taking along Rosalind Russell as the only American star to appear in the picture. British leading man Robert Donat stars as an idealistic doctor tending to the ravaged lungs of the workers in a Welsh mining town. Over the years, he drifts away from this noble calling, lured by the easy and lucrative racket of humoring wealthy hypochondriacs. Eventually, however, his faithful wife (Russell) persuades him to return to the miners who need him so desperately. The cast also features Emlyn Williams, a Welsh actor-playwright who was himself a product of a mining community. Williams also co-authored the screenplay.

"The Stars Look Down" (1939). This gritty portrayal of life in the Welsh mines was one of the early indications that director Carol Reed was destined for greatness. Also based on an A.J. Cronin novel, it tells the story of a young man (Michael Redgrave), born into a Welsh mining family, whose parents sacrifice to send him away to school to find a better life. Although he originally intends to enter national politics to try to better the lot of the miners, he ultimately becomes convinced that he can do more good by returning to his hometown to work for better conditions on a local level. Once again, Emlyn Williams appears in the cast.

"Proud Valley" (1940). An American ship's stoker, played by Paul Robeson, is offered a coal-mining job in a small Welsh town. He is recruited in part because it is discovered that he has an exceptional singing voice. The miners have organized a choir, and it is hoped that he can help them win a singing competition. A disaster in the mine, however, puts an end to this dream. Robeson was an African-American who, in a time of intense racial prejudice, was able to become not only a football star but also a lawyer, an accomplished singer, and a world-renowned actor. This film dovetailed well with Robeson's political views, which led him to champion the cause of workers everywhere, even to the point of advocating Marxist philosophies. Of all his films, this is the one of which Robeson is said to have been most proud.

"How Green Was My Valley" (1941). Hollywood director John Ford is best remembered for his Westerns, including "Stagecoach" (1939) and "Fort Apache" (1948). Actually, however, Ford, who was born Sean Aloysius O'Fienne, was equally at home with stories set in the U.K. One of his finest efforts, for example, was this adaptation of Richard Llewellyn's novel following the fortunes of a Welsh coal mining family across some fifty years. The episodic film meanders through their lives with very little in the way of a coherent plot, and yet never fails to engage the viewer. This is partly due to the outstanding cast, including Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Donald Crisp, and Roddy McDowall. Credit also goes to Ford's distinctive visual style, which was among the most poetic in Hollywood. Be forewarned that this is an unashamedly sentimental film, but Ford was a director who knew how to handle sentiment, if ever there was one. The film won the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1941, beating out even "Citizen Kane" (1941), Orson Welles's dazzling cinematic debut.

But, at least for the producers of "Solomon and Gaenor," perhaps the most significant achievement of "How Green Was My Valley" was to establish that it is after all possible to make a successful film about Welsh miners without Emlyn Williams.

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