I was watching The Constant Gardener the other day, you know that film where Ralph Fiennes looks into the suspicious death of Rachel Weisz and which has absolutely nothing to do with Wales apart from one newspaper headline in the middle? It was the Kenya parts of the film that got me thinking, specifically about how nations are portrayed on film. I realized that this film might be one of the better portrayals of modern Africa on film. Modern Africa, on film, is hardly ever pictured accurately. It is presented, usually, as one country (even The Constant Gardener comes close to making this assumption, often using the term ‘Africa’ instead of Kenya) that is mainly full of grasslands, deserts and tribal people when in actual fact it is a huge, sprawling continent of fifty four nations which does have grasslands, deserts and tribal people but also city dwellers, rich people, poor people, farmers, mountains, jungles, great cities and magnificent architecture. Now The Constant Gardener, though not a perfect portrayal, does a good job of portraying a small aspect of the real African continent rather than the usual Hollywood stereotypes. As I watched I started to reflect about how nations are portrayed on film and after a while my mind settled on my adopted homeland of Wales and the films that are set there.
The most famous depiction of Wales on film is in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. Today it is mostly known for beating Citizen Kane at the Oscars and most people call it out for this when they should really be calling it out for a very different reason. The film follows a young boy, Huw, as he grows up in a South Wales mining town and it pulls out almost every Welsh stereotype in the book. The most obvious stereotype is the mine and the coal miners- Stereotype dictates that every man in Wales is a coal miner and that every Welsh town has its coal mine (It was even once put about that Tom Jones worked as a coal miner before becoming a singer) but actually the Welsh coalfield covers only a small part of the country. Almost all of the coal (besides a few outlying sections on the borders and in Pembrokeshire) is in the South Wales Valleys. But even at its peak, industry in the valleys wasn’t just about coal mining, even in the so called mining towns. There were Iron works and Steel works as well- In Ebbw Vale and Myrthyr Tydfil and other places for example. There were a lot of mines but not every man worked down the pits or came home with blacked up faces, covered in coal dust as depicted in the film. Not everyone worked at the coal face. There were all sorts of jobs and not all of them below ground. A lot of them (like the shaft-lift operators and mechanics etc.) worked above ground.
Worse, these coal miners are constantly singing (Another stereotype… All Welshmen can sing!)- They sing on the way to work, coming back, whilst working, when someone gets ill, when there’s the inevitable mining disaster… THEY’RE ALWAYS SINGING! This is again, not true to life. Song is associated with the people of Wales but they don’t do it all the time… And contrary to popular belief there is such a thing as a tone deaf Welshman! And only one actor in the entire film was actually Welsh and as such all the attempts at doing a Welsh accent are awful- And they are, I think supposed to be, the truly stereotypical Welsh Accent, the sing-songy type. This accent does exist but not every Welsh person speaks like that. In fact, most people speak in a much more muted, less obvious (though still distinguishable) accent and in some parts of the country (especially in the north) the very idea of the ‘Welsh accent’ disappears entirely.
The only stereotype not present in the film is someone shagging a sheep tied to a lamp post… But I’m sure the filmmakers would have put it in if they could have got away with it. How Green Was My Valley is an awful, awful depiction of Wales on film and it is a shame that it had to go on to become the most famous depiction because it is without a doubt one of the worst examples of horseshit I have ever seen. It isn’t Wales that is depicted in this film, it is a mock Wales, a fantasy Wales, a stereotype. It is so bad that I am struggling to find a worse depiction of Wales on film. I don’t think there is a worse depiction than that film. Compare it to The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain, for instance, which isn’t even in the same league. Like How Green Was My Valley it is set in a rural Welsh community but that is as far as the similarities take it. Although it plays for comical effect, this film is at least grounded in a more realistic interpretation Wales. It uses proper Welsh actors (to some degree) and it doesn’t lean on any stereotypes to get by- It isn’t filled with singing coal miners for a start. It is, in my opinion, an incredibly watchable and funny film. It gets the Welsh character and the Welsh spirit almost perfect, and that should come as no surprise when you learn that the writer and director, Christopher Monger, was himself Welsh and the story was inspired by events that occurred in his home town of Ffynnon Taff.
And no other film I can think of, set in Wales (in whole or in part) comes close to matching How Green Was My Valley for how wrong it gets Wales. No other film has ever got Wales so wrong. The 1959 John/Hailey Mills film Tiger Bay shows Cardiff as it used to be before the decline of industry and the modernisation of it all, and as it uses Cardiff and the surrounding locale as a location it could hardly go wrong. According to a well known online encyclopedia (which, academically speaking, one is not supposed to use as a verifiable source) the scenes of street culture within the film were ‘authentic’ and ‘realistic’ and at that recommendation we can probably say that is one of the most accurate portrayals of Wales on film. Hunky Dory is another good one- a multi-stranded story about a teacher trying to stage a musical version of The Tempest and the various pupils involved in the production. It’s a decent enough watch and it again shows a more urban version of Wales. There are others that are more accurate portrayals too… A Poet in New York and The Edge of Love about Dylan Thomas for instance. I haven’t seen it but Submarine looks to be a good portrayal as well (I’m basing that on the trailer and synopsis by the way) and after watching the trailer I really want to see it. It looks like precisely the kind of thing I would enjoy watching.
I suppose we could include The Black Cauldron on the list as well, even though strictly speaking it isn’t actually set Wales. It is ‘Prydain’ but the setting (and the story) are based on the mythological Wales of the Mabinogion so I think it can count- And despite being mythological it still manages to present a more accurate portrait of the real Wales than How Green Was My Valley- And before you say anything, there really are creatures like Gurgi around (Gurgies?)- They live mostly in the forests of the north- Pentraeth, Newborough and Gwydir- though you’ll find a similar sort of creature living in the city of Newport. The thing is, no other film set in Wales relies so wholly on stereotypes as does How Green Was My Valley. Whilst you might find someone singing a song every once in a while or the odd coal miner here and there, they aren’t as omni-present and they aren’t always blacked up from head to toe. They actually used Welsh actors in these films too (though you do still, once in a while, get some interloper attempting an accent.) They show (excluding The Black Cauldron) the real Wales, not some mocked up Disneyland fantasy of stereotypes.
As a whole Wales, on film, comes out really well. There aren’t an awful lot of Welsh set films (compare to the rest of the British Isles where there are hundreds) but that I think plays to its favour because it means that there are only a handful (and I could only find one) of films which can be said to be a truly poor depiction of the country. The films of Wales, the good ones, show a varied land, one that is both rural and urban, one which prides itself on its culture and history. Whilst it does have its grim and dark parts (as exemplified in Tiger Bay) it is a place of high spirits and even in the darkest of hours you can find a smile and a laugh- Even to the point where it can be infuriating. Wales is a country that you can’t help falling in love with and that should be reflected when it is on the silver screen. And for the most part, that is what happens. When you see Wales on film you can’t help but fall in love.
One thing more though… I’ve noticed that all the films set in Wales take place in the south. There aren’t many (or any) in the north or in the middle. Could that mean that Past Force will be the first?