By Scott Ross
Richard Llewellyn’s massive novel about a Welsh mining family, filmed with a melancholy poet’s eye by John Ford. It was Orson Welles’ bad luck to enter the Oscar race with Citizen Kane against this moving yet resolutely unsentimental saga — not that the Academy would have given him the awards anyway. (Interestingly, both movies were shot by the great Gregg Toland.) The cast is uniformly superb: Donald Crisp as the kind-hearted patriarch, Sara Allgood as the mother, and Walter Pigeon as the gentle minister whose love for the radiant Maureen O’Hara is doomed to mutual frustration.
But the revelation is little Roddy McDowall as Hew, the sensitive youngest son. McDowall later claimed that Ford “played me like a harp,” but the director was astonished by the boy’s innate abilities: Watching McDowall rehearse the scene in which Hew first enters school, and noting the way the child sat at his desk completely in character, staring forward and finding his seat with one buttock, the director remarked to an onlooker, “That kid is so good he acts with his ass!” The final shot of McDowall, his dead father in his arms and shattered beyond feeling, is like the more vaunted image of Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, but far less studied and academic… and infinitely more devastating.
Phillip Dunne did the splendid adaptation, and the spirited score is by Alfred Newman. His theme for the lovers is so tender and delicate it sounds as though it could shatter if you breathed too hard on it.
My only complaint about this luminous portrait of familial warmth in adversity is the comic moment in which Allgood douses Crisp with a bucket of water as he’s about to light up his pipe after a day’s work in the mines. You just know that woman would never have done such a thing to a man who labored under those conditions.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross