When is an important film at its most important? When it’s not even remotely concerned with any notion of importance. That is a perfect summation of Pen Tennyson’s “The Proud Valley”, out Monday from Studio Canal. The 1940 film stars black political activist Paul Robeson in one of the earliest notable lead roles for a black actor and it barely mentions the colour of his skin. In the South Wales coalfield only once is the colour of his skin mentioned, after that he becomes just another one of the boys down the pit. Director Pen Tennyson does little to mark him out as different. That is with the exception of his voice, Robeson is introduced through the booming bass of his baritone singing voice cascading through an open window as the local choir engages in their latest practice.
In the 77 years since this film was released, any film with a black lead has been dragged into a mire of racial politics and social exposition either by the creative forces or by having a deeper meaner hoisted upon it. Black Actors can’t just be actors, look at George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the casting of Duane Jones for this at its most prominent. And nearly 30 years prior to Romero’s rabble-rousing horror classic, racial sensitivity was the last thing you’d expect from the 1940s, especially when you consider the way non-white actors were being treated in Hollywood at the time. It should be no surprise then that The Proud Valley’s is one of the more salient features of BFI’s “Black Star” Season.
As for what it is, The Proud Valley is much simpler – it is, as the title implies, about the exploits of a small welsh community the trials and tribulations they face whilst retaining the pride they have as a mining town. As a British film from the 40s, it possesses that Ealing feeling that is oft reported in how it makes people not born in those generations nostalgic for simpler times. This is at its finest when Robeson talks with the children of the valley, scenes that could put a smile on the stoniest of faces. However, this is no fluff piece, in one of his early shifts down the pit Robeson’s David (Goliath, for the most literal surname in cinema) along with the Parry Father and Son, Edward Rigby (Bert) and Edward Chapman (Dick) when there is a pit explosion. With the pit destroyed and many dead, Tennyson examines what remains of the town when it has lost its everything. There we find the Proud Valley.
The unquestioning rejection of racial politics putting modern films to shame is not the only thing worthy of discussion in Pen Tennyson’s film, it is also the oddest of musicals. Perhaps it fits that bill in the loosest of ways, nonetheless foreshadowing the likes of Brassed Off (1996) by a good half-century in using music as short hand for the soul of the working class community. 1940’s Wales is aeons away from the modern world as the very idea of the choir has become more marginal and niche with each passing year. Yet, the earnestness of the hymns melt away the very notion of the cultural zeitgeist, again, like those scenes Robeson shares with children, each respective song will ensnare you thanks to the pride bellowing out of each and every sang syllable. In this proudest of Valley’s, song is infectious.
Song keeps the heartbeat of the town pumping as without it doom would reign supreme and that pride would become a distant memory. That is another way in which this film is remarkably prescient, like 2014’s Pride, Tennyson picks his way through the social and emotional wreckage left by the close of the pit. This is no dour film, so unfortunately this is a beat that the film skips over instead opting to send a small group of hungry miners to London to petition the pits owners to try and save the caved in mine for both the war effort (1940) and to revive their dormant town. And again, Tennyson heads back to more optimistic grounds with the final act jumping into a seemingly impossible mission in which a few men tackle the burning rage of nature before swelling with a final scene of rousing triumph. A manipulative ploy? Maybe, but gloriously so.
Backed up by the thoughts of the small selection of generous extras, The Proud Valley is an invigorating film that is simultaneously timeless and years ahead of its time. Its only issue is that the cast is unremarkable with no one performance sticking out from the ensemble, fitting perhaps with its focus on the community and the choir. Then there is the tragedy of this lost British classic, director Pen Tennyson died in active service in World War II aged just 28. He along with Japanese director Sadao Yamanaka (also 28) soared with potential, imagine the films they could’ve made if they weren’t taken long before their time. The mind boggles.