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THE PROUD VALLEY
Director: Pen Tennyson
Starring: Paul Robeson, Leslie Phillips & Clifford Evans
Legendary American actor and singer Paul Robeson became something of a fixture in British theatre and cinema during the 1930s. His increasingly left-wing views meant no American company would hire him, and his support for the miners made him an especially popular figure in Wales. Their plight, and his support, is the basis for the 1940-made THE PROUD VALLEY, his final British film. A new restoration is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday, 27 March.
The story behind his involvement in the film is explained in one of the special features, actor David Harewood talking about Robeson. If your knowledge of the man is patchy, this is a fine starting point. If you know nothing about him at all, it’s a must.
This is also the film, the only one that, in Robeson’s own words, he was “proud to play in.” Given his political interests, it’s not hard to see why. He plays David Goliath, an African American sailor who arrives in a small Welsh mining village after his ship has docked in Cardiff. His tremendous singing voice attracts the attention of the local choir master, who plans to win the singing competition at the local Eisteddfod. But those ambitions go out of the window when an explosion leads to the closure of the pit and hard times for the villagers. David encourages the miners to fight for their livelihoods and a group of them march to London in the hope of persuading the owners to re-open the mine. They eventually agree, but it’s fraught with danger.
Set in the Welsh valleys in1938 and released in 1940, the shadow of World War II hangs over the film: the potential need for coal during the war is the main reason for re-opening the pit. It makes it something of a period piece and there are plenty of scenes obviously filmed on sets, rather than on location, betraying its age. The rather sanitised view of the miners and the village as a whole simply reinforce that, as does the black and white photography and dated dialogue.
But it’s all too easy to pick holes in a film that, on the outside at least, is very much of its day. It gets off to a comparatively slow start, with the emphasis on the local choir (which, only ever sings in English) and establishing the main characters and their relationships. But it really gets into its stride just past the half way point when the small team of miners, including David of course, go down the pit to re-open it. It’s by far and away the best section of the film: the setting is much more convincing and the roof collapse almost has you choking through the coal dust along with the miners. It’s a reminder of a way of life that’s simply history for more recent generations.
There’s also a contemporary resonance that director Pen Tennyson could never have anticipated when he was behind the camera. David’s instant and unquestioning acceptance by the pit community makes a sharp contrast with what he probably would have experienced at home in segregated America. There’s only one negative comment about his colour, and it’s put down firmly and swiftly, never to be repeated. And, although the village looks more prosperous than it should once the pit has closed, the financial gulf between the miners and their wealthy bosses is most definitely there. There’s a sense of little having changed ……
Viewed through 2017 eyes, THE PROUD VALLEY has more than its fare share of weaknesses, but watched in the context of its setting and the current political climate, it takes on layers of interest and significance. It may be a period piece, but it’s one that’s earned its re-release and more than deserves an overdue re-appraisal.
THE PROUD VALLEY is re-released on DVD on Monday, 27th March
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