A Universal Tune
It’s a sheer delight covering the restoration series by a number of studios as they perform cultural archaeology in their vaults or in this case mine, searching, sifting and uncovering some real diamonds every so often. Polished up bright and reissued to the world again, to show us how much we have progressed as a society and how much we’ve regressed, the timing of this latest release (quite rightly) can’t have been a coincidence.
Depending on your knowledge of the late actor Paul Robeson, it will no doubt have an effect of your experience of this latest gem from the STUDIOCANAL movie colliery. ‘The Proud Valley’ (1940) stars the American actor and renowned bass singer who had the stature of Mohammed Ali in his prime, but rather than hitting with his fists, he knocked people out with the power and depth of his voice, it’s stunning.
It sounds like it originated in the very core and history of the Earth and seeped it’s way to the surface through tectonic plates and time to be harnessed only by men with the stature and grace of Kings. He was hugely respected internationally having starred in ‘Show Boat’, ‘Othello’ and ‘Sanders of the River’, spanning a career that went from NFL to singing to acting (in musicals and film) to human rights activist.
The reason I mention awareness of Robeson is because as you watch a very decent movie indeed about an ordinary man, who happens to have the smile, calm, peace, wisdom, patience and presence of a demi god, or a 6 ft 3 inch black Yoda. His every movement has the peace and grace of a Titan, or a primed fighter who never has or wants to fight because they are all too aware of the consequences. The tale unfolds and then you watch the extras on the disk, and it effectively makes you rethink everything about the man, in the most wonderful way possible.
The movie opens with David Goliath (Robeson) meandering down a Welsh country road by himself. He has the air of an Olympian God stepping down from Olympus to see how the mortals are getting on. He’s carrying nothing but the sailors coat on his back (he was a marooned ships stoker) and his thread bare boots. Despite this, he has a glint in his eye and a smile on his face. He has his health and the strength/desire to do honest work, and he has his humanity.
Hopping aboard a passing coal cargo train he meets and strikes up an immediate friendship with a travelling old hobo. The wanderer tells David about his playful scam of deliberately singing out of tune to get money from local folk. The whole region is so proud of their relationship with song, that to hear something out of key is painful to say the least.
They arrive in a local mining village to try out this scam once again, but being that David has the voice of forming planets, he’s talents are quickly recognised by the local choir master in preparation for a forthcoming competition. Kindness begets kindness and he lands himself a job working down the local mine too, and despite some juvenile jealousies about his singing talent that are projected as comments on his skin colour, he quickly becomes a respected and loved member of the community.
A tragedy strikes the mine and harsh times arrive as there’s no work available as the owners refuse to reopen it. Tempers flare, resentments rise, and folk who once seemed friendly now show their true colours. Something must be done, and as there’s clearly no help coming from London as folk suffer ever more (clearly standard behaviour), the miners must take action themselves.
There are fleeting moments where it might seem that they have this incredible singer on board, so they have to throw in a song to get their monies worth. But Robeson’s voice is actually incredible irrespective if you are a fan of choirs or not. The power of his tenor is universal and beautifully removes any concept of race, class or nationality instantly. And then you watch the extras.
Despite him being a hugely respected and successful singer/actor, clearly some of his proudest work was as a human rights activist around the world. There’s a scene in the movie where the miners decide to head to London to confront the clearly indifferent owner (an aptly titled ‘Sir’). The story is fiction, but a similar event happened when in real life as a mine was closed down due to an accident. The owners refused to reopen it as they saw it as an opportunity to break the local Miners Union (which Margaret Thatcher and the Tory Government continued to do years later after the Union took down a dreadful Conservative Government) and take back dictatorial control. The miners and villagers had zero income and basically started to slowly starve to death. A contingent of miners marched to London where Robeson was performing, and sang outside the venue until they got his attention. Once he heard of their deliberate enforced suffering he immediately arranged for food supplies and help to be sent to the village and eventually went there too. It’s hard to believe that a man with such empathy would have his passport removed by the US Government as punishment for his ‘activism’.
It’s quite poignant watching the movie now given current climes where xenophobia, racism and hate fuelled by ignorance, lies and jingoism reign, promoted by main stream media. It’s also strange watching the natural generosity given to David by the Welsh villagers when Wales voted for Brexit, it seems like a fantasy movie. But empathy reigns supreme eventually, and despite sacrifices or repeated oppressions by the establishment, this movie profoundly reminds us that we are all the same, just trying to get on with our lives, and we’re not just pawns of the elite.
As mentioned there’s some great extras on the disk. The movie is very fine window into a bygone age (the miners ‘equipment’ is shockingly poor), but it’s the introduction to Paul Robeson that is the true discovery. I wasn’t so aware of this true giant of a human being, and now I’ll be eagerly reading up on him, watching his movies and aiming to carry on his profound human sensibilities. I highly recommend you get the movie and aim for the same.
7/10 ‘The Proud Valley’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now.