Mrs. Miniver is a film with an interesting history behind it. During its production, America had not entered World War II and many of the populace was in favor of isolationism. While production was in full swing, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, sending the USA headlong into war. Mrs. Miniver was released six months after this, resulting in the film breaking box office records and swaying many Americans in favor of fighting in the war. Winston Churchill wrote to MGM saying Mrs. Miniver is “propaganda worth a hundred battleships.” In addition to the box office numbers, the film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning 6, including Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actress.
The director of the film William Wyler was born in Alsace-Lorraine so he knew very well the threat Hitler posed to people all over the world. As a result, he made many directorial choices for the film with the specific mindset of encouraging Americans to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Interestingly, President Roosevelt urged MGM to release the film in cinemas all over America for propaganda purposes.
Mrs. Miniver tells the story of the titular middle-class English family and their struggles to cope with the outbreak of WWII. The film is told from the perspective of Mrs. Miniver and she must endure her husband participating in the Dunkirk Evacuation, her eldest son entering the war as a member of the Royal Air Force, losing friends, and protecting her children from the assault of bombs dropping onto her formally peaceful village.
I found Mrs. Miniver to be a surreal, absurd experience with an unapologetic attitude and sincerity. Though the film has lost much of its ability to inspire audiences, I can understand why it was so popular in 1942. Many of the film’s set pieces, such as the bomb shelter the Minivers use during German attacks and a flower contest going on despite the threat of bombing raids, are masterfully staged and acted thus allowing the audience to forget, if only briefly, that this film is still well-crafted propaganda. The village that is home to the Miniver family looks more like an American small town speckled with British buses then any British village I have ever seen. Moreover, some of the actors speak with a more Canadian accent rather than British. All of this, of course, is used to further the film’s point: that the British are like Americans and it is in everyone’s best interest to ally against the Axis Powers.
One aspect of the film that I enjoy is how it illustrates class differences without any antagonism. The movie merely shows how classes are intermingling more often with the emergence of the middle-class. The rose Mr. Ballard grows and names after Mrs. Miniver is used as a catalyst for better class relations. The formula for rose growing, breeding, budding and manure and the class equivalent, upper, middle and working, can combine to create a more unified society and war effort.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is how it effectively illustrates the effects of total war on families and those off the battlefield. Through the course of the movie, the audience can see their own family reflected through Mrs. Miniver’s family. As a result, the movie does have its moments that are earnest and make an impact. The audience can feel what is in Mrs. Miniver’s heart when her husband is summoned to help rescue the Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, when her son flies across the village during the night, when Mrs. and Mr. Miniver protect their children while they are all huddled together in the bomb shelter. Mrs. Miniver truly brings the war into one’s own family.
Another scene that could be considered campy but has brilliance to it involves a crashed Nazi pilot forcing Mrs. Miniver to give him food in her kitchen at gun point. Mrs. Miniver remains calm and collected throughout, facing him and disarming him. After Mrs. Miniver shows him kindness, the Nazi snarls that England will fall like Barcelona and Warsaw with millions dead in mere hours. He finishes his threats in German: Wir werden alle vernichten! (“We will destroy everybody”). The entire scene has a quality to it that is almost dream-like with a melodramatic and enthralling power. Moreover, back in 1942, it was a very real possibility that his threats would become fact.
Another famous and brutally effective scene is the Vicar’s final sermon in a bombed out church. It speaks to not only the people gathered for the sermon but also to the audience, discussing how it is a war of the people and affirming their unified determination to win. The scene makes good use of what is left of the church for symbolism such as having the camera pan to focus on the gaping hole of the roof with sunlight shining through, symbolizing hope for the victory of the Allies.
Interesting facts: the scene was rewritten by Wyler the night before it was filmed and President Roosevelt admired the sermon so much that he requested it be translated into multiple languages and air-dropped into territory occupied by the enemy thus using it to help build morale.(2)
Despite the film’s superb craftsmanship and sincerity, it is not without its problems. As one would expect from a propaganda film, Mrs. Miniver is extremely biased with very pro-British and anti-German elements. Some could also argue the effects of war portrayed in this film are tame and safe when compared to war films of more recent years. Some people may also have issues with the pacing and how uneven it can be as it takes a while for the main story to really get going while other times events unfold at a rapid pace. Personally, I did not mind the slower pace because I like films that take their time, especially if it helps establish the characters.
Another moment that bothered me, at least from a feminist perspective, is when Mr. Miniver smacks Mrs. Miniver on the bottom after he finds out about her encounter with the crashed German airman. Prior to this, he had returned from his mission at Dunkirk the day before and expressed how it was the obligation of the man to handle such stressful situations while the wife looked after the house and children. Through this negative physical action, though he only did it once, it almost seemed Mrs. Miniver had to be put back into her place thus reinforcing the idea that the man of the house must be the pillar of courage. I suppose it is just an example of this film being a product of its time. To clarify, this is just my interpretation of the scene. For all I know, the writers and director could have intended it to mean something completely different.
The characters are not the most complex however; they share a common bravery, rising to the challenges of their circumstances with calm and determination. Mrs. Miniver, played by Greer Garson, is portrayed as a nice, middle-class and ordinary woman. She is happily married with three loving children. She is willing to spend a little extra money to enjoy the finer things in life for herself and for her family. She shows her bravery when she confronts the German airman in her kitchen, reacting with calm and a proudly arched right eyebrow.
Mr. Miniver, played by Walter Pidgeon, is the head of the household and easygoing. Like his wife, he is not above a little monetary indulgence. He works as an architect and he is very loving to his children. He shows his bravery when he sets out on his boat to Dunkirk without complaint or backing out when he was given the opportunity.
Vincent, played by Richard Ney, is the apple of his parents’ eyes. He is an Oxford student and has developed radical views on philosophy and the class system. He speaks his mind and is not afraid to challenge the status quo. However, his views are promptly forgotten when he falls deeply in love with the beautiful Carol. She calls him a talker rather than a man of action and Vincent, after war is declared and taking Carol’s words to heart, joins the Royal Air Force. His bravery is shown through his patriotic duties and flying missions.
Carol, played by Teresa Wright, is the fetching, kind granddaughter of Lady Beldon. She is quite intelligent and witty. She is not afraid to speak her mind and cares deeply for her grandmother. She is also not afraid to admit when she is in the wrong. When she first meets Vincent, she tells him his big talk will not solve many problems. She also is class conscious and does volunteer work in London’s slums. Her bravery is shown in her acceptance that Vincent might not come back to her one day.
Lady Beldon is the haughty and proud aristocrat who started the Beldon flower competition. She is loyal to her family and wants what is best for Carol. She sees the war as an inconvenience and fears for her place in society as the class order begins to change. However, she eventually grows to accept the changes.
Mr. Ballard, played by Henry Travers who is best known for playing the angel Clarence in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, is a humble and kind stationmaster, bell ringer and rose-grower. Despite the Beldon Cup traditionally being awarded to Lady Beldon herself each year, Mr. Ballard wants to win the flower competition with his beautiful Mrs. Miniver rose. Speaking of the Mrs. Miniver rose, the attribute of showing resilience in the face of adversity is also expressed symbolically through this very rose.
Overall, Mrs. Miniver is a well-made and well intentioned film with relatable characters, beautiful sets, and many scenes that are moving and sincere. Though it is biased, black and white with its morals and has some pacing issues, I still think it is a movie with elements that are worth seeing, if only for its historical importance. It is a film with historic and cultural significance and one that I personally do not regret seeing.
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