Subsequent to the publication of his novel On the Black Hill in 1982, author, journalist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin was of the impression that his sprawling tale of 80 years of life for a family living in rural Wales would be too difficult to adapt for the big screen. Having met Cardiff-born television and film director Andrew Grieve, and heard his passionate ideas for a filmed version, however, Chatwin gave his blessing to Grieve’s proposed project and even travelled around to view locations and converse with the locals during pre-production.
Adapted by Grieve himself, On the Black Hill, now available in a BFI dual format edition, is an engrossing and evocative tale set in the Welsh borderlands of Herefordshire and Radnorshire. The region’s stunning landscapes, beautifully photographed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, provide the backdrop to the trials and tribulations of the Jones family. Headed by puritanical farmer Amos, performed with committed intensity by Bob Peck, the Jones family experience feuds, romances, estrangements and two world wars, all the while tending to matters on the previously vacant farmstead ‘The Vision’. Grieve’s personal ties to the land and its people shine through in a film that matches its source material for insight, emotional heft and poetic beauty.
The films made by Welsh filmmakers and/or ones set in Wales made by visiting (or indeed never visiting) directors constitute a distinctive, collective voice addressing issues of national identity, work, economic hardships, familial bonds and the hefty emotional ties to what are some of the most striking physical spaces in Britain.
A relatively small but essential part of British cinema, here are 10 key films set in Wales that have all, in some way, tackled, employed or reflected those themes.
- 10 great films set in Ireland
- 10 great films set in Yorkshire
- 10 great films set in East Anglia
- 10 great films set on British islands
The Old Dark House (1932)
Director James Whale
Once feared to be a ‘lost’ film, and something of a damp squib at the American box office on its initial release, James Whale’s gothic chiller is now regarded as a formative entry into that particular genre. Atmospheric, possessed of a wicked streak of black comedy, and tightly directed, this 71-minute Universal horror can be seen as a blueprint for any and all of the creepy-old-house movies that have followed.
Adapted from J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, and featuring an impressive ensemble cast headed by Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton and Gloria Stuart, The Old Dark House sees numerous travellers taking overnight refuge in the titular dwelling during a particularly fierce storm in a remote part of rural Wales. Rather than a restful night, however, the guests of the bizarre Femm clan experience a night of psychosis, obsession and dangerous familial secrets that threaten the safety of everyone present.
The Proud Valley (1940)
Director Pen Tennyson
Produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios, the south Wales-set mining drama The Proud Valley would be one of only three films directed by the talented Pen Tennyson before his career was tragically cut short when he was killed in a plane crash in 1941. Shot on location in the Welsh mining heartlands, Tennyson’s tale of resilience and self-sacrifice starred Paul Robeson in his first film after a self-imposed two-year hiatus from the big screen. Robeson was cast as miner and singer David Goliath; a role loosely based on the experiences of a black American miner whose search for work took him all the way to Wales.
Socially conscious and progressive in its depiction of working class and black characters, The Proud Valley focuses on daily hardships, clashes between the workers and management, and the shared pride of those in the male voice choir, before a fatal accident at the pit and the outbreak of the Second World War overshadows all that has come before.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Director George Waggner
Another of Universal’s classic horrors to be set in Wales was George Waggner’s hugely influential The Wolf Man. A highlight on Waggner’s jobbing, eclectic CV, the screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak, who went on record to state the film was Welsh-set despite it never being specifically mentioned onscreen. Both commercially and critically more successful than the studio’s initial venture into lycanthropic themes, Werewolf of London (1935), Waggner’s much loved film saw Lon Chaney Jr cast as the eponymous creature, a role he would subsequently reprise for Universal in four more horrors during the 1940s.
Returning to his ancestral family home in Llanwelly after the death of his brother, John Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) builds bridges with his estranged father Sir John (Claude Rains), and becomes enamoured of local lass Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). A conflicted and tragically doomed Talbot is pulled apart by desire and psychological torment once a ‘wolf-like’ creature passes on its deadly curse when he intervenes during an attack on a villager.
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Director John Ford
The winner of five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, John Ford’s adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley is one of its legendary director’s most captivating human dramas. Though a fictional tale, Llewellyn’s source novel was drawn from the author’s memories of summer visits to his grandfather’s in the south Wales mining village of Gilfach Goch.
Recounted in flashback, with a voiceover narration by the older Huw Morgan (voiced by Irving Pichel), this tale of the hard-working, close-knit Morgan family and the changes forced upon them and their local village community’s way of life over a number of years is seen through the eyes of the young Huw (Roddy McDowall). Stirring, sentimental and performed by a strong cast including Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara and Donald Crisp, this is a working-class drama that was an early eulogy to an industry 40 years before Thatcher put the final nails into its coffin.
Blue Scar (1949)
Director Jill Craigie
Known primarily as a documentary filmmaker and screenwriter, Jill Craigie both penned and directed the fictional proto-social realist drama, Blue Scar. Symbolically named after the colour that miners’ wounds would turn upon healing, Craigie’s tale played out in a small Welsh village where the local pit had recently been nationalised. The first British film to feature a score composed by a woman – Grace Williams – Blue Scar threads its evenly balanced questioning regarding the pros and cons of nationalisation through a romantic narrative involving ambitious miner’s daughter Olwen (Gwyneth Vaughan) and the more traditional Tom (Emrys Jones).
Performed by a mixed cast of professional and nonprofessional actors, and partly funded by the National Coal Board (NCB), Craigie’s drama foregrounds verisimilitude and the day-to-day issues facing working-class mining families nationwide at the time. The past, present and future of both the individual characters involved and their community as whole is explored in what remains a bold, intelligent but sorely undervalued work.
Hedd Wyn (1992)
Director Paul Turner
Produced for the Cardiff based, Welsh-language television channel S4C, Paul Turner’s anti-war biopic Hedd Wyn holds the honour of being the first Welsh-language film to be nominated for the best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. The English-born, Welsh director Turner has long been a proud advocate for Welsh nationalism, and his moving portrait of the life and tragic death of poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (Huw Garmon) makes much of the central character’s unease at the fervent British/English nationalism prevalent at the time of the Great War.
Writing under the titular, bardic name of Hedd Wyn (Welsh for ‘blessed peace’), Evans was renowned and adept at penning verses in which faith and nature were prominent themes. Having composed a number of poems relating to the First World War, Evans was subsequently killed during the Battle of Passchendaele, thus robbing Wales of one of its most distinctive, sensitive and intelligent voices.
House of America (1997)
Director Marc Evans
Throughout his eclectic 20-year directorial career, which has included the IRA thriller Resurrection Man (1998) and the undervalued horror movie My Little Eye (2002), Cardiff-born filmmaker Marc Evans has periodically focused on tales set in his Welsh homeland. The documentary Beautiful Mistake (2000), musical Hunky Dory (2011) and the British-Argentine co-production Patagonia (2010) have all revolved around issues pertaining to his fellow countrymen from various walks of life.
Evans’ downbeat but impressive first outing, House of America – which scooped four awards at the 1998 BAFTA Cymru ceremony and won Evans himself the best directorial debut gong at the Stockholm International Film Festival – is a dour tale of a dysfunctional family living in a run-down mining town. National identity, and the inherent pride or lack thereof in being Welsh, is a key theme in a tale in which an absent father, American pop culture and diminishing opportunities also play important roles in shaping the lives of the characters.
Twin Town (1997)
Director Kevin Allen
Kinetic and anarchic, Kevin Allen’s cult black comedy crime flick Twin Town has one of its lead characters mockingly refer to the film’s main setting, Swansea, as a “pretty shitty city”. Populated by a rogues gallery of junkies, small-time gangsters, corrupt coppers and pensioners with a fondness for magic mushrooms, Twin Town was never going to be a film that the local tourist board would be banging the drum for.
Real-life brothers Rhys and Llyr Ifans, Dougray Scott and William Thomas take prominent roles in Swansea-born Allen’s feature film debut, which also contained a small but memorable cameo from his older brother, comedian Keith Allen. The chaos begins when junkie brothers Jeremy and Julian (Rhys and Llyr respectively) unsuccessfully attempt to seek compensation from a crooked local businessman for a workplace accident that injures their father ‘Fatty’ Lewis (Huw Ceredig). A tit-for-tat war rapidly escalates in this joyously scabrous tale.
sleep furiously (2009)
Director Gideon Koppel
Having spent my formative years growing up in a tiny farming community in the Cotswolds, I can attest to the resonance of the themes and the way and pace of life as witnessed in Gideon Koppel’s poetic, elegiac documentary portrait of the ailing Welsh farming community of Trefeurig. As with mining, agriculture and the communities for which the farming industry is its lifeblood have undergone many crippling and/or fatal changes over the years and Koppel allows these points to emerge from his film with an unforced subtlety.
The season’s pass, the mobile library makes its monthly visits and the local school faces closure as the lure of urban life and the lack of local opportunities threaten to extinguish Trefeurig’s way of life for good. The weight of time, the bonds of history and the resilience of the locals emerge as key themes in one of modern British documentary filmmaking’s finest achievements.
Director Richard Ayoade
Having made his name on screen in the likes of The Mighty Boosh, Nathan Barley and The IT Crowd, and having cut his teeth off-screen shooting music videos for acts such as Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend, Richard Ayoade graduated to fully fledged film director in confident style with Submarine in 2010. Adapted by Ayoade from Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 coming-of-age novel of the same name, Submarine is seen through the emotional, hormonal eyes of 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) and plays out in 1980s-era Swansea.
As much influenced by the French new wave and Wes Anderson as it is by any aspect of British cinema, Ayoade’s film is stylish, funny and touching. Teenage desire, crumbling adult relationships and the spectre of death are addressed in a narrative in which all the characters are refreshingly, recognisably flawed. Both the source material and its adaptation breathe new life into well-trodden themes.
To our list above, you suggested these other Wales-set favourites:
American Interior (Dylan Goch and Gruff Rhys, 2014)
Coming Up Roses (Stephen Bayly, 1986)
Dark Horse (Louise Osmond, 2015)
The Halfway House (Basil Dearden, 1944)
Human Traffic (Justin Kerrigan, 1999)
Only Two Can Play (Sidney Gilliat, 1962)
Patagonia (Marc Evans, 2010)
Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)
Separado! (Dylan Goch and Gruff Rhys, 2010)
Solomon & Gaenor (Paul Morrison, 1999)
Tiger Bay (J. Lee Thompson, 1959)
Under Milk Wood (Andrew Sinclair, 1972)
A Way of Life (Amma Asante, 2004)