Paul Robeson first discovered the struggles of the Welsh mining communities when he met a deputation of blacklisted miners on a hunger march to London in 1926. Appalled by their hardships and touched by their resilience, Robeson's allegiance with Wales started here, culminating in 1957 when, blacklisted by McCarthy and denied the right to a passport, he performed in a transatlantic telephone exchange concert with Porthcawl's Eisteddfod from his home in the US. But it's this film that preserves that special relationship for posterity and managed to be, of all the films he made, Robeson's own personal favourite.
Written by the socialist husband and wife writing team of Herbert Marshall and Fredda Brilliant and the novelists Louis Golding and Jack Jones (who also appears in the film) The Proud Valley is based on the true story of an Afro-American miner from West Virginia who had drifted to Wales, by way of England, Looking for work. Robeson plays the hero, David Goliath, as down-on-his-luck man in a similar situation who arrives in the valleys and wins the respect of the musically orientated community there through the gift of his powerful bass baritone. Welcomed into the bosom of the Parry family, David is given board and lodging and a start down at the pit in exchange for his participation in the forthcoming Eisteddfod.
However, this harmony is shattered when a mining disaster takes not only the life of his friend and choirmaster Dick Parry (Edward 'Mr Grimsdale' Chapman) but also the livelihood of the whole community as the mine is closed down. After a year of hardship, unemployment and penury, David convinces Parry's son Emlyn (Simon Lack - the surname clearly short for lacking, as in 'he's lacking the ability to do a Welsh accent or convince at all') and some of the other miners to walk the 200+ miles from the valleys to London to confront the pit owner at his office and demand the opportunity to work once more.
Directed by Penn Tennyson who was sadly killed in action just a year later, The Proud Valley was an extremely progressive movie by 1940's standards. The film refused to glamourise or sentimentalise the characters or their plight and depicts its working class characters not as the comic stereotypes that many films of the period elected to do, but instead as multi-dimensional characters who possessed heart, humour and generosity. Equally, Robeson secured one of his finest roles precisely because the film refused to conform to racial stereotypes too; David is not an 'Amos and Andy' style comic relief or a noble savage, he is a working class man first and foremost with all the admirable qualities that that implies. The colour of David's skin barely matters upon the film and, as such, Robeson is allowed to portray the kind of heroic role that was all too lacking for black actors at that time as well as having the chance, as he once said, “to depict the Negro as he really is—not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen.“ It's easy to see why the film was Robeson's personal favourite, its the perfect fusion of the man's artistic and political attitudes and his belief that the message of working classes coming together, regardless of their colour or nationality, was a deeply important one.
Aside from the impact of the outbreak of war upon the storyline (coming from Ealing, it does, in its later stages at least, share similarities with many of the propaganda pictures that were to come from the studio, serving as an impeccable recruitment drive for the Bevin Boys) he film may share some similarities with Carol Reed's big screen adaptation of AJ Cronin's The Stars Look Down which was also released in 1940, but its USP remains the remarkable Robeson.