Mrs. Miniver (1943)
Dir. William Wyler
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright), Best Screenplay (George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, Arthur Wimperis), Best Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg)
Other Nominees: 49th Parallel, Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, The Talk of the Town, Wake Island, Yankee Doodle Dandy
I believe it would be a disservice to William Wyler’s wartime melodrama Mrs. Miniver to ignore the fact that the film is propaganda. This is not meant to demean the film, indeed, many great works of art have been created specifically to redirect a political compass, but to ignore its purpose or to excuse it would weaken the film’s character, and undermine its tremendous heart. Mrs. Miniver casts Greer Garson as a middle-class mother and housewife (those descriptors in that order, thank you) living in the English countryside before and during the country’s entry into World War II (a subject that is pure catnip for the Academy). As the war progresses from mist to cloud to rain to hurricane, the Miniver family finds themselves at its mercy, just as any family might have during the War. The film shows the family’s simple, harmonious way of life before the war, when their greatest worry was a town flower show, as a valuable ideal that is worth defending at great mortal cost.
Mrs. Miniver follows two ethical arcs: first, that of the British every(wo)man contributing to the war effort for King and country etc., and second, that of another, quieter warfare on the homefront: that of class. The Minivers (Mr. Miniver is played by Walter Pidgeon) are solidly middle-class, though they do have a number of servants floating around, and their college age son, Vin (Richard Ney, Garson’s real-life husband WHAAAT) is full of grand ideas about social inequality in their country. When he falls for upper-class Clara (Teresa Wright), from a landed family, her grandmother Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty) does not approve, mostly for the difference in class. Vin argues for societal equity, though he dismisses the maid rudely, and Clara is quick to catch him on his hypocrisies:
“I know how comfortable it is to curl up with a nice, fat book full of big words and think you’re going to solve all the problems in the universe. But you’re not, you know. A bit of action is required every now and then.”
Thus, the film wraps the second (lesser) issue of fighting for social justice up with its grander theme of fighting the Axis powers. This theme does not exeunt, however, as we are reminded again and again that all Brits, of high and low social status, must recon with the high price tag of war.
The film’s discussion of the ethics of war is limited. The film is meant to leave its audience on a patriotic high, not pondering larger issues of conflict. Little warfare is shown, and even when a character is injured by German planes overhead, no blood is shown and all injuries are out of frame. In a way, the film seems to make war cozy: the family drinks tea and knits in their backyard bomb shelter (which is decorated), they pull their blackout curtains closed with as much tuck-the-children-in gusto as they would a lace drape, and Mr. Miniver happily sails off to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation, and returns home stubbly but no worse for wear. It’s an adventure! Surely with the Code, there was little that could be done to show true war-time horrors, but this film was not meant to startle the American and British populaces with violence, but to show a common struggle for a greater good. Even in polite conversation doomsday talk is forbade: “Is this a time for frivolity?” Asks Vin. Clara’s response: “Is this a time to lose one’s sense of humor?” The film is so delicately crafted and its heart so full, that it’s sort of lovely in its simple emptiness.
Other than Garson, there is very little about this film that feels British. The film’s London scenes are shot on a Hollywood backlot that looks a day away from playing New York or San Francisco, and the Miniver’s house is non-descript suburban enough to be in Pasadena, Cape Cod, or River City. I had half assumed that they were in Westchester until a character mentioned taking the train from Oxford, 20 minutes into the film. Pidgeon doesn’t even try to affect a British accent. The establishing shots of the Thames or ancient crumbling belfries were shot on a film of such a different grain that their sudden appearances are startling. These American trappings might be cosmetic, sure, but such details are be crucial to establishing the British temperament and aesthetic crucial to the story’s emotional success.
Essentially, the film asks us what the war is fought for, and the answer it suggests is for the dignity of our lifestyle. There are many events in the film that stand out to a modern viewer as unrealistic or even impossible (why were the villagers surprised by their country’s declaration of war? Weren’t there warning signs aplenty? Poland had just been invaded!) but such trivialities are moot when we consider the story the film is telling and its goal. When reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to their young children, Mrs. Miniver concludes:
“I suppose that’s the way to be really happy. Be with something that you just can’t live without.”
It may be overly quaint at times, but Mrs. Miniver certainly makes its case for that.