An American drifter finds himself in a small Welsh community threatened by the closure of the local mine.
Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Pen Tennyson
Starring: Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas
1940's The Proud Valley is a unique mix of musical, disaster movie, social realist drama and wartime propaganda, all buoyed by a central performance from legendary singer Paul Robeson, who is somewhat stilted and often awkward when not crooning here, yet always charismatic.
Robeson plays the on-the-nose bemonikered David Goliath, a giant of an American drifter who finds himself in the Welsh valleys in search of employment. Overhearing David's booming bass voice, local choirmaster Dick Parry (Simon Lack) immediately befriends him, setting him up with a job in the local mine and providing room and board in exchange for David lending his vocal talents to the town's choir at the upcoming national choir contest.
If you've seen an episode of classic TV shows like The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk or indeed The Littlest Hobo, you'll be familiar with the narrative structure of The Proud Valley - a stranger arrives in a small community and sorts out its troubles before moving on. Robeson's David is a lot like The Hulk, but instead of turning green when life gets him down, he simply bursts into song. His American optimism inspires his new Welsh friends to march to Parliament when their mine is forced to close down following an explosion, a development that could spell doom for the entire community. Of course, the men sing their hearts out all the way to London.
It's in the marching segment that the movie evolves into a piece of wartime propaganda. As the men make their journey to the capital, we see newspaper headlines telling of Hitler's invasion of Poland, and by the time they make it to London, Churchill has declared war. In this way, Robeson is the first American entertainer to contribute his talent to the war effort, albeit for Britain, not his own country, with which he enjoyed a notoriously fractious relationship, branded an enemy of the state for his involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
The Proud Valley is often clunky, moving between subplots in an ungainly fashion without ever really deciding on its central narrative. But for fans of Robeson and students of British cinema, and particularly the representation of black characters on screen, it's a must see. Save for one well meaning yet cringey line - "We're all black down the mine!" - it's remarkably progressive in its treatment of its black protagonist. In the one moment in which his skin colour is mentioned, David immediately steps up, towering over the quivering mouthy racist offender and putting paid to any further talk of such matters. It's a scene that's striking for 1940, and one that would have been impossible to find in a contemporaneous Hollywood production.
In today's identity politics obsessed climate, it can often be exhausting to see films receive flack for a lack of representation or misrepresentation, but while some arguments come off as merely attention seeking (the faux outrage at Matt Damon's presence in Chinese blockbuster The Great Wall by some who hadn't even seen the film), the truth is we do need more representation of minorities in our movies. If you're tired of white saviour narratives, you could do worse than taking a trip back to wartime Britain for this rare black saviour movie.
Actor David Harewood on his love of Paul Robeson, 'Paul Robeson and The Proud Valleys' featurette, an episode of 'Mining Review' featuring Robeson, and selected audio tracks from the famous Paul Robeson transatlantic concert make this an essential purchase for Robeson completists.
The Proud Valley is released on Blu-Ray, DVD and EST on 27th March from Studiocanal.