It’s rare you’ll find a film that isn’t especially great but is still well worth watching. The Proud Valley is one of those rare beasts.
This 1940s Ealing production is never going to be a classic. Following the story of a black miner (Paul Robeson) who jumps a train to the Welsh mining village of Blaendy in search of work, the story plods rather than roars along. Some of the cast were real-life miners rather than actors – and it shows. The talent’s of Paul Robeson are also woefully wasted – he barely sings and often struggles to deliver the platitude-heavy dialogue.
However Proud Valley is not only a fascinating slice of working-class history but a testament to Robeson the activist.
It’s worth remembering that labour relations during World War II were at an all time low. Draconian laws and a woeful lack of workers’ rights meant that, during the first few months of the war, there were over 900 strikes. However censors ensured that what was pumped out into the media played heavily on the two P’s – patriotism and positivity.
Proud Valley, released in 1940, has none of that bravado. Rather than offering up a rose-tinted image of the nation’s valiant workers, the film foreshadows the gritty kitchen-sink realism of the ‘50s in its portrayal of the everyday lives of working men and women. The ending, which had originally shown the worker’s taking control of the mine, was ultimately recut to give the film a more consolatory tone, but it’s radical stuff never-the-less. Robeson himself knew it wasn’t his best film, but it was still the film he was most proud of.
Robeson had a long love-affair with Wales, regularly travelling to the Principality during the 1930s to support miners’ causes. In later life, he became a victim of McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts and although the US government withdrew his passport, the Welsh continued to invite him to their annual Eisteddfod. He finally participated by phone in 1957, and spoke passionately about his “beloved wales” and the mining communities who he saw struggling against poverty and oppression.
In The Proud Valley, it’s this passion which shines through even the most turgid scenes. What’s more, Robeson’s David Goliath is a black hero of the sort rarely seen on screen then, or now. Working class, openly political, and passionately defiant.