Latest Review – The Proud Valley (Blu-ray) (Studiocanal)


Director: Pen Tennyson

Cast: Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas, Edward Rigby, Dilys Thomas, Janet Johnson, Charles Williams, Jack Jones, Dilys Davies, Clifford Evans

UK Distributor: Studiocanal (Vintage Classics)

Genre: Drama • Year: 1940 • Country: United Kingdom • Running Time: 77 minutes (1:16:50) • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 • Image: B & W • Language: English • Rating: PG • Region: Region B • Video: 1080p High Definition [Resolution] | MPEG-4 AVC [Codec] • Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio • Subtitles: Optional English SDH

Having already established himself on the London stage during the late 1920s and 30s with landmark performances in Show Boat and Othello (making him the first black actor to play Othello in Britain since Ira Aldridge decades earlier), Paul Robeson went on to make a number of homegrown British films, including the controversial Sanders of the River (1935), Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon’s Mines (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940), which was to be his last feature film made in the UK.

Filmed on location in the South Wales Coalfield, the true heart of the Welsh mining community, Robeson stars as gentle giant, David Goliath (a symbolic name if ever there was one), an African-American seaman and stoker who drifts into the closed valley of Blaendy and wins the respect of the local community with his effortless charm, charisma and soaring bass-baritone voice.

Despite racial prejudice and initial hostility from those concerned for the safety of their jobs, Goliath soon joins the other miners down the pit and shares their own hardships, eventually marching with them to London to protest when a disaster forces the closure of the mine. Solidarity reigns.

Having drawn the attention of the local choirmaster, and the respect of all, Goliath becomes a working-class hero – the people’s hero – assisting them in their bid to win the contest at the upcoming Eisteddfod.

Directed by Pen Tennyson (who tragically lost his life in a plane crash at the age of just twenty-eight, having completed only three films), and written by Louis Golding (based on a treatment by the husband and wife team of Herbert Marshall and Fredda Brilliant, with the help of novelist Jack Jones), The Proud Valley is typically British in its overall execution, perfectly capturing the close-knit community spirit of a small-town faced with the harsh realities of everyday life.

Having turned down numerous offers and projects from major film studios, Robeson was eventually persuaded to make the film as he felt it offered him an opportunity to realistically represent African-Americans on the big screen, in contrast to the way many contemporary pictures portrayed them. Robeson always claimed The Proud Valley was his proudest achievement as it showed workers in a positive and respectful light, and it isn’t difficult to understand why.

The cast are a bit of a mixed bag and Welsh accents do wander on occasion, though this is most definitely Robeson’s show, and he dominates with his towering presence and rich, glorious vocal timbre.

The Proud Valley is a rather unique work in the fact that, despite early animosity (which is quickly resolved when Dick Parry’s choirmaster threatens the culprits, exclaiming ‘Aren’t we all black down that pit?‘), there is very little a mention of race or skin colour; Goliath is merely one of the team – a respected member of the community – as it should be.

With its focus on the working classes there are of course clear left-wing political undertones present throughout, though it’s far from a gritty, boundary-pushing work of charged social realism, instead opting for a more spirited and uplifting approach.

Contemplating the time in which the film was made of course gives it added significance. Though production began some time before the outbreak of war, filming was not completed until mid-September 1939 (shortly after Britain declared war on Germany), forcing producer Michael Balcon and director Tennyson to recut the more controversial, original ending.

The Proud Valley endures as a timeless and hugely important document that re-inforces the significance of morale, unification and the soul-lifting importance of music during the most difficult times.

Special Features: 

Paul Robeson and the Proud Valleys (7:47)

David Harewood on Paul Robeson (12:07)

Selected Tracks from ‘Paul Robeson: The Transatlantic Exchange Concert’ – Recorded on October 5th, 1957, between New York and The Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl (Total: 13:08):

Introduction by Will Paynter (1:52) | Paul Robeson: Greetings from New York (1:10) | Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? (1:32) | This Little Light of Mine (1:50) | Y Delyn Aur Treorchy Male Choir (4:21) | Paul Robeson: Thanks (1:25) | Will Paynter & Paul Robeson: The Land of my Fathers (0:56)

Mining Review 2/11: A Star Drops In (1949) (9:26)

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