|Index||10 reviews in total|
This film was released in Britain shortly after the outbreak of war, and
it reflects that uncertain period. Coal was a national priority, yet the
coal industry had a long legacy of unemployment and bitter labour
Consequently, Robeson, in the guise of a discharged American seaman, fetches up in a South wales mining village, where he is a valuable recruit to the local choir. Unfortunately, a disaster closes the mine, and a group of the miners (including Robeson, of course), march down to London to try and persuade the colliery bosses to let them find a way round the blocked section. As they march, a succession of newspaper posters chart the events leading to the outbreak of war.
This is an echo of the pre-war hunger marches - but in this situation, a clever narrative device is used, for no-one is to blame for them being out of work. As a result, the bosses and workers are later seen working together, trying to reopen a pit that is strategically valuable to the war effort.
Of course, the plan eventually boils down to detonating an explosive charge that is, in effect, a suicidal act. Robeson knocks out the miner who has drawn the short straw and sacrifices himself. Just as the soldier on the battlefield, the miner sometimes has to lay down his life for his friends. (Mining in wartime Britain was a reserved occupation.)
There is hardly any reference to colour prejudice in this film, and full use is made of Robeson's fine singing voice.
Pen Tennyson's best remembered film of the three 1930s movies he made before
being killed in action in the Second World War, The Proud Valley' concerns
a mining village in Wales which faces change on two fronts first in
finding a new singer for their choir (American bass-baritone Paul Robeson
just happens to be passing through Wales looking for a place to work); and
second in dealing with a major disaster in the mines.
While it may be stretching credibility to place Robeson in this setting, off the screen he developed a long-standing affinity with the people of Wales which lasted throughout his lifetime, and this was the one film he made of which he was truly proud. Whether singing Deep River' with the choir, or working underground with his comrades from the village, he fits in just fine. There is a strong number of character actors in support. Little seen but unlike any other film, The Proud Valley' is a fine testament both to British film-making and the huge community spirit of the Valleys.
This film was shown to a group of Turkish students recently with a surprising result.. they loved it! Robeson suffered all through his career from dud scripts. He was usually cast as an African chief in low budget British made films, in this film he plays the part of a coal miner in Wales. Songs include "Deep River" and "Land Of My Fathers". Robeson was accepted more in England than he was in the USA probably because of his political beliefs. Communist or not he had a great voice and this film shows that given a half decent script he was a good actor. Buy it while you can, these Gems tend to go out of print very quickly never to be seen again for years.
Don't get me wrong, I liked the film. The story, of an African-American
who finds himself working in the pits in Wales, is perfectly passable,
and was as leftwards as it was going to get to thread its way through
the British film censors. But we know what we are going to watch this
film for - to hear Paul Robeson sing.
During the 1980s, the British Bass, Robert Lloyd, listed his big four bass singers of all time. Robeson was among them. (The others were Fyodor Shalyapin, Cesare Siepi and Ezzio Pinza.) The BBC2 programme he did this for, also featured a few seconds of footage from proud valley.
The big scene comes just after his friend has been killed in a mining accident. The local Eisteddfod - a Welsh festival of music and poetry - takes place. Robeson gets up and sings "Deep River". I have heard Robeson's 78 rpm recording of this song. This version is nothing like it. It is magnificent. As Robeson performs, the shivers go up the spine and the tears come rolling down the cheeks. This is so good that only Paderewski's performance in "Moonlight Sonata" can be compared to it.
Because of this performance, no one who watches this film will be disappointed.
I caught this 1930's curiosity on an outlying PBS channel at 2 a.m.
thank goodness for recorders, otherwise 5 people probably saw it at
that hour. In all my years of old movie watching, I don't recall Proud
Valley being shown in big market LA. My point is that for decades
Robeson's few films were withheld for political reasons, and when
finally released, had become dated curiosity pieces with graveyard show
times. Too bad, because Robeson is a cultural treasure whose misfortune
was to ally with one of the most aggressive anti-racist forces of his
time, the American communist party. Whatever the wisdom of that move,
given the circumstances, it was an understandable alliance, at least in
my little book.
Robeson's name may be above the title, but he really shares the starring role with the Welsh mining community he becomes a part of. I expect that's one reason this was his favorite film. He really has only one spotlight vocal, but it's a show-stopper, a terrifically moving version of the old spiritual Deep River. Otherwise, he blends into an ensemble cast, even though his sheer presence remains commanding throughout.
It's a good story, about a community surviving the shutdown of its central coal mining industry. There are echoes of leftist styles here, particularly in the mobilized-crowd scenes with their banners, etc. Nonetheless, as another reviewer astutely points out, labor issues are folded into the larger war effort that was then breaking out (late 1939) along the Polish corridor. In fact, by the look of the latter sequences, I wouldn't be surprised if some re- editing and re-shooting were involved to keep abreast of fast moving global events.
There are several arresting scenes. The set for the Robeson solo with the huge choral backdrop remains impressive even by today's standards and accentuates this, the film's emotional centerpiece. Another eye-catcher is the unemployed men picking over the mountainous slag heap like starving birds amid growing desperation. Also, the collapsing mine tunnel looks almost too real to be a "special effect", and I'm still wondering how they did it in those days before blue screens and digitalized computers.
Anyway, here's hoping Turner Classic Movies finally decides to show a Robeson film, especially this one, at a decent hour, so a broader American public can catch up with a cultural treasure long denied them. Too bad, the great actor-singer-athlete had to go to Europe to find the kind of dignified roles he was so beautifully suited for.
This film was recently shown to a large and very appreciative audience of
all ages and backgrounds at the Paul Robeson Film Festival, organised by
National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, a Department of The National
Library of Wales (situated in the beautiful University town of
on the mid-Wales coast).
It is full of wonderful, humane performances, has very exciting and exceptionally well-realized scenes of underground peril in the coal mines of South Wales (when we had such long-forgotten things as mines), and a social conscience clearly influenced by the Soviet workers' epics of the period. Add to the mix a degree of seriousness in the treatment of the lives and problems of working-class communities, and of the real-life Welsh experience, and also of the experience of blacks in the workplace, and one has an English-produced film probably unique in its period for the range of its sympathies. The coming war obviously put the English of the time on their honour!
Oh, yes - and the singing is very special, too!
Of course, worker-manager relations are idealised to a degree, but not so much as to suppress quite a number of uncomfortable truths, that must have had smug metropolitan audiences of the period squirming in their seats. Altogether, a much truer, and therefore finer, treatment of the Welsh mining experience than anything to be found in that overblown, overhyped confection, 'How green was my valley'.
Naturally, this excellent early Ealing feature is not generally available to the domestic market in Britain.
However, since we know the value of these things in Wales, I understand that our Sales Department at The National Library of Wales is usually able to supply individual video copies of the film! Interested parties should make enquires directly to that institution.
The Festival of films featuring Paul Robeson, of which the above is the first, continues in association with Aberystwyth Arts Centre Cinema until the 15th of July, 2003. The unreserved tickets are free. An interesting linked exhibition at The National Library of Wales, 'Let Paul Robeson Sing!', continues 'til the 25th of October 2003. The admission to this is also free.
I'm sure this information will be of interest to IMDB patrons.
This is a very good film that gives a rare glimpse of Welsh life that
has long since passed. The film begins in Wales just before WWII and a
wandering American (Paul Robeson) wanders into town. Despite being a
black man, almost everyone accepts him and he is soon a valued member
of the community. He also is an important part of the local choral
group--something VERY important in this culture. In fact, throughout
the film is lots of lovely Welsh singing--and it's perhaps the best
part of the movie. But, it's also a great portrait of a way of life
that has passed--the grim life of a coal miner. Their struggle is
chronicled in this film--with strikes, mining disasters and the like.
This sort of plot is not at all surprising for Robeson, as he was a committed life-long socialist--with some communist sympathies. This is NOT meant as a criticism--just explaining his affinity towards the downtrodden and labor unions (which were important in providing a safe working environment for the miners). But I love that the film is not preachy about--it just shows their difficulties as well as their work ethic, values, belief in God and strong wills. A wonderful film and a nice film to see in a double-feature with "How Green Was My Valley"--which as a Hollywood and highly romanticized view of these people.
All in all, one of Robeson's best films because he plays not a black man but a man--and a heck of a man at that.
Paul Robeson. The mere mention of the name evokes images of the consummate performer, a Da Vinci of the stage and screen, a presence fully deserving of admiration. Yet, despite his exemplary talent and popularity, his list of movies is pathetically small, which can be attributed to two factors - racism and politics. How sad because Paul Robeson was undoubtedly one of the major figures in U. S. entertainment history and if one wants to know why, one just has to watch the movie Proud Valley, directed by Pen Tennyson. Here Paul Robeson plays a role that transcends the ludicrously ridiculous racial stereotypes that Hollywood wanted Mr. Robeson to play. Imagine for a moment, my friends, Paul Robeson playing a shuffling, mumbling sycophant. An outrage! Yet this is exactly the kind of silly roles that Hollywood would have had Mr. Robeson play if he had so chosen. That he starred in such movies as Show Boat and The Emperor Jones was due in large part to the fact that these films were directed by British directors who truly appreciated Mr. Robeson's talents. In Proud Valley, Robeson delivers an outstanding performance as a miner who makes the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live. The story may seem contrived, but it isn't. The movie is neither sensationalistic or melodramatic. Rather it presents in a straightforward way a story that the audience can understand, appreciate and applaud due in a large measure to the presence of one of truly legendary giants of American stage and screen, Paul Robeson.
In reviewing the achievements of African-Americans on film in chronological order for Black History Month, we're now at 1940 with the entry of The Proud Valley, considered by star Paul Robeson as his favorite. In this one, he's an American named David Goliah coming to Wales to find a job. After hearing his voice from outside the window while conducting his chorus in rehearsal, Mr. Parry (Edward Chapman) manages to convince David to sing in his choir and gets him a job at the mines where he also works. His son, Emlyn (Simon Lack) also works there and is engaged to Gwen Owen (Janet Johnson). I'll stop there and mention that Robeson is in fine form musically especially when he sings "Deep River" that sends chills down the spine. Perhaps because of his color, his character is sometimes in the background but by the end he does become essential. So for him, I'd definitely recommend The Proud Valley.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ten years ago, I read a piece by the British socialist politician Tony
Benn in which he wrote about his three favourite moments in film. One
was the band sequence in the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece The
Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Another was the tear-jerking climax of
The Railway Children. The third came from The Proud Valley, a vehicle
for that icon of black America, Paul Robeson, set in a Welsh mining
community. Here's what he wrote: "A black Pennsylvanian man starts work
in a South Wales mine. The other miners are not too happy that he is
black until they realise that they are also blackened. In my favourite
scene a choir is singing at the eisteddfod, but the lead singer is not
present. The conductor is about to sing the solo part when they hear
Robeson singing outside and are spellbound." Benn slightly misremembers
the story, since the racist characters are never shown to accept
Robeson, despite his friends pointing out that they are "blackened",
but his words on the film remain very moving. They certainly sold me on
wanting to catch the movie, which I've finally done, thanks to the
recent Optimum DVD release. In all honesty, The Proud Valley isn't as
poetic, subtle or timeless as Benn makes it sounds, but it does have
some wonderful moments.
Robeson's David Goliath is a gentle giant who pops up in the Welsh mining village of Blaendy. Initially joining forces with terrible busker Edward Rigby, he gets an in with the locals via his remarkable voice. As Benn says, the scene in which he blesses choir practice with a mesmerising solo from the street below is tremendously effective. It would be even better if Rigby hadn't been prodded into providing some unsuitable comic relief just seconds into Robeson's performance.
The film has been praised for its complex characterisation, but compared to the twin peaks of this sub-genre, The Stars Look Down and How Green Was My Valley, it's shallow at best. The pro-union politics are also muted, aside from a poorly-executed if heartfelt variation on the Jarrow March*, but the film is notable for the friendship between Robeson and his white co-workers. Graham Greene heaped opprobrium on the presentation of the star, saying he was a "big black Pollyanna", keeping "everybody cheerful and dying nobly at the end". But while I'd agree that Robeson's death is entirely unnecessary and difficult to take (why couldn't a white character buy it in the final scenes instead?), the film's treatment of race is still far more progressive than in most Hollywood films of the period.
The notable exception would be Dr Kildare Goes Home, released the same year, a standard series film featuring the remarkable sight of a black doctor going about his job without comment on his colour. Disappointingly, given Robeson's standing as a leading trade unionist, his David Goliath sticks around in Blaendy for personal reasons, rather than ideological ones, but tellingly the actor said it was the only work of which he felt complete pride. Incidentally, the Herbert Marshall who penned the story was not the urbane leading man, but a left-wing playwright.
The performances are spotty. Robeson, though he has tremendous presence, is only adequate in dramatic terms, leaving Rachel Thomas to scoop the acting honours. Playing an unbending, fiercely proud but desperately poor mother, she does well in her first film, with what's really quite a clichéd part. She reminded me a lot of Mary Gordon, the Scottish character actress who had so many nice parts in Hollywood during the '30s and '40s, most memorably in The Irish in Us.
Edward Chapman, best known today for appearing in the atrocious sci-fi movie Things to Come and playing Mr Grimsdale opposite Norman Wisdom, is also decent as the choir leader and town father figure. Chapman demonstrated his conciliatory, pro-union credentials in real life by trying to get John Gielgud thrown out of Equity for having gay sex. The Proud Valley also offers a cardboard romance between miner and management hopeful Simon Lack and Gail Patrick clone Janet Johnson, whose shop-owner mother is really hateful ("Before long, me and my girl will have cleared right out of this poverty-stricken hole" she says at one point), and a couple of tense sequences dealing with mine collapse.
It's an extremely erratic film. The production is slightly slapdash, sometimes cheap-looking and featuring sloppy editing. But every so often there's a painterly, artistic image that takes you completely by surprise: miners disappearing into the black; a slow, upsetting shot of bodies in rubble; townsfolk singing and praying in the dying light, before the motionless wheels of stalled industry. Likewise, while the plotting is often naive and over-convenient and the elements dealing with the outbreak of war are crowbarred into the narrative, the film ends in unexpectedly powerful fashion, before inexplicably leaping forward in time, robbing us of a reunion scene or the chance to pay tribute to Robeson's tragic hero.
Thankfully, the film has a calling card more wondrous than almost any other: Paul Robeson's voice. He only has around six minutes' worth of songs, but from his street-side solo to the take on Land of My Fathers that soundtracks the movie's coda, the sound of Robeson's booming, awesome baritone stirs a feeling quite unlike any other. Just a blast of it is enough to make the hairs on my neck stand up, and his version of Deep River, sung at a critical juncture of the film, is intensely moving. While not the lost classic I was hoping for, The Proud Valley remains an interesting work and - in those few Robeson songs - has a clutch of great moments to be savoured in joyous isolation.
*Trivia note: The Proud Valley was the first film to be premiered on radio, with the BBC broadcasting an hour-long version edited from the soundtrack.
|Plot summary||Ratings||External reviews|
|Plot keywords||Main details||Your user reviews|
|Your vote history|