Mrs. Miniver is propaganda; there's no doubt about that. This is the film that Winston Churchill claimed did more for England's war efforts than a fleet of destroyers, with a rousing, climatic speech that was reprinted in Time and Look magazines, broadcast on Voice of America radio, and excerpted in leaflets dropped over ally and enemy nations alike. As Joseph Goebbels admiringly wrote, "its refined, powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of." The extent to which Hollywood was and is part of the war machine, clamoring for public support as a cog in the military-industrial complex, remains unsettling even in the context of the so-called Great War. But propaganda can't be flatly dismissed for its ethical conundrums—to do so would require throwing out everything from Battleship Potemkin to I Am Cuba—and Mrs. Miniver should be remembered for what it is: a moving, richly interwoven, powerfully constructed drama about war intervening in the unspectacular lives of a stolid middle-class family.
Its director, William Wyler, is more well-known for his other war drama, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which casts a solemn, sympathetic eye on the plight of returning American veterans. Following the war, they come back to a country that looks very different from the one they left, treated to empty patriotic rhetoric but largely neglected by the nation they fought to protect. Maybe as close as Hollywood ever came to Italian neorealism, The Best Years of Our Lives offers a sobering antidote to the gung-ho militarism of many films about World War II (or its aftermath).
Mrs. Miniver, released four years before The Best Years of Our Lives, takes place on the other side of the Atlantic. Put into production in late 1940—before Pearl Harbor, and before the U.S. began to veer away from its policy of isolationism—the film underwent numerous rewrites, partially to reflect growing anti-German hostility and to stoke wartime morale with greater fervor. But for much of Mrs. Miniver's running time, war is the unseen phantom hovering over the characters' lives, revealing the hostilities that already exist between them or punctuating their unfulfilled hopes and dreams.
Like the series of Times articles by Jan Struther on which the movie is based, Mrs. Miniver begins as a low-key character study into which senseless wartime violence intrudes. The first scene features Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) fretting over an expensive but beautiful hat, which she impulsively decides to buy; almost simultaneously, her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) buys a new car and wonders how he'll break news of the purchase to his wife. They're financially comfortable, perhaps overly concerned with status symbols, but also averse to arrogance and eager to treat everyone on their own respectful, humane terms. This is warmly conveyed in the opening scenes, in which Kay bristles at the haughtiness of a fellow train passenger, Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), who also happens to be her neighbor; and then is sincerely moved when Ballard (Henry Travers), a rail station master and amateur horticulturist, reveals that he's named a beautiful rose after her, finding similarities in their simple elegance.
Despite the ominous conversations about Germany shared among the residents of (fictional) Belham, war hardly enters these people's minds. In fact, the first sign of conflict is class-based, as the Minivers' pedantic son Vin (Richard Ney) returns from Oxford and promptly berates their neighbor's granddaughter, Carol (Teresa Wright). Carol's aristocratic grandmother has requested that the Minivers not take part in the town's upcoming flower show, providing Vin an excuse to lambaste the Beldons (and implicitly his own family) for their elitism, a symptom (Vin says) of England's class inequality. He's insufferable (at least initially), but also an interesting way for the movie to disarm accusations that it only cares about the plight of the upper class: the Minivers may be privileged, but they're only one small swath of the dire experiences that the people of England were then facing. Several supporting characters (among them Ballard the stationmaster, the Minivers' maid Gladys, and numerous men with whom Clem goes via sea to the battle of Dunkirk) try to portray a lower-class perspective, and even if they veer toward caricature or comic relief, they're also fully-formed individuals with life and personality, their world no less upended by impending war.
Before long, at a formal gala held at an exclusive club in town, a sulking Vin wonders aloud what's the point of trying to enjoy oneself when there are so many problems in the world—at least until he notices that Carol is also there. Inevitably, they fall in love, and it's to the movie's credit that Carol is easily as rich and multifaceted as Vin (if not more so): a radiant soul who volunteers often and gives back to the community, believing in the importance of making a small but positive impact in one's immediate world. (It's one of Teresa Wright's finest performances, and only her second after appearing in Wyler's The Little Foxes.) One of Mrs. Miniver's primary themes is thus introduced: the powerlessness of average people to escape the destinies created for them by bloodthirsty nations, and the need to embrace life before it's cruelly taken from us. A trite theme, maybe, but it's conveyed with uncommon urgency and melancholy in Mrs. Miniver.
Months after Carol and Vin's engagement, England is attacked by German forces, compelling Vin to join the R.A.F. He feels that it's simply his patriotic duty and hardly thinks twice before boasting about his prowess as a fighter pilot to his mother and fiancee, who are well aware that he'll likely be ripped away from them soon. As propaganda, Mrs. Miniver doesn't denounce the eagerness with which these men play soldier—this is also evidenced in the scene in which Clem and most of the male townsfolk take their boats to join the battle of Dunkirk—but there is little joy to be gotten from their would-be sacrifice. We never see villainous Germans or Nazi warplanes shot down, but we do see the devastating aftereffects of bloodshed; the film manages the impressive feat of balancing a rousing call to arms with a somber acknowledgement of war's vast human reckoning.
As the war continues to obliterate life in this most unspectacular town, Mrs. Miniver crafts a number of extremely intense scenes of doom and suspense. At one point, Kay encounters a badly wounded German officer and is forced to feed and protect him at gunpoint; at first, she sympathizes with this young man, duped into sacrificing himself for his country like countless others, but eventually slaps him in a fit of rage as he rants about destroying everything they hold dear. (This scene was rewritten numerous times as war escalated, and although the version we see here paints the German soldier as a maniacal enemy, we realize that he's been fed this rabid propaganda by his own military. Perhaps there's a self-reflexive shrug here: Mrs. Miniver plays a similar mobilizing role on the allied side, if less virulently. The German officer is even cast to look almost exactly like Kay's son Vin, which surely isn't a coincidence.) In another scene, Kay and Clem cower in their bomb shelter as their toddler children, Toby and Judy, try to sleep on narrow cots; as the sound of the air raid becomes deafeningly loud and the walls shudder from the tremors of falling bombs, the power cuts out so all we see are the whites of the Minivers' terrified eyes. This is one of the most frightening war scenes from classical Hollywood, confined to an interior space barely bigger than a closet. (The stellar cinematography is by Joseph Ruttenberg, a Russian Jew who began his career as a photojournalist.)
Mrs. Miniver doesn't seem to be remembered as a classic, though it won six Oscars in 1943, including Best Picture; that may be part of the problem, as some critics regard it as a stuffy, stiff-upper-lip prestige picture. (The Chicago Reader's Dave Kehr says that it's "dated very badly"; I couldn't disagree more.) The same might be said of William Wyler, the prolific Hollywood director who's seen by many as the proficient craftsman of stuff like Ben-Hur (1959), which neglects his string of masterpieces from the 1940s. But André Bazin, for one, realized Wyler's quiet boldness, claiming that "nobody can tell a story in cinematic terms better than he." Bazin praised Wyler's use of deep-focus cinematography, which, while less audacious than that of Welles or Renoir, allowed scenes to play out at length and viewers to focus on the characters' fluctuating emotions—a skill demonstrated especially well here in a scene in which Kay, having been abandoned by her husband and son, walks next to a river as the stationmaster tries to engage her in conversation in the background.
Even more impressive, maybe, is Wyler's penchant for conveying events or ideas by showing us what's not there: using metaphor and suggestion rather than direct illustration. This is what Peter Wollen termed the "indexical" level of signification in cinema, enabling the audience to come to their own conclusions. (Examples cited by Wollen include footsteps on the beach showing that someone had been there, or a weather vane showing the direction of the wind.) There are many powerful instances in Mrs. Miniver, but the best might be a late shot of an empty church pew and a crying mother indicating the death of a child during the war. At another point, the death of a major character is illustrated only by a gaping gunshot in the side of a car and the looks of grief of those who love her. While cruder war movies might show the scenes of carnage and histrionics, Wyler uses graceful visual metaphor to impact the audience, and the effect is shattering. In this way, although Mrs. Miniver is highly literary in some ways (the symbolism of the "Mrs. Miniver rose"; the vast array of townspeople reminiscent of George Eliot), it is also a purely cinematic work.
It ends with a funeral in a bombed-out church, during which the pastor gives the speech that has made the movie legendary in its wartime morale-boosting. "This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform," the pastor intones. "It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom." No surprise that this became a patriotic rally cry during times of hardship. But it's somewhat remarkable that even this climactic speech (and the scene surrounding it) are not simple glorifications of the valor of war. Half of the church is empty, unpopulated by those who have died. The walls and pillars lie in rubble, and the ceiling has been eviscerated, light pouring in through a jagged crater. The last shot of the movie is of British warplanes soaring through the sky, and while that was likely meant to an image of inspiring heroism, we view it through a church—a symbol of tradition and morality—that has been violated, revealed to be penetrable. Couldn't the symbols of war and nationalism be viewed the same way? The conflux of visual meaning in this scene is staggering: on the surface, it is a celebration of the sacrifice of war, a reminder to both British and American audiences that sacrifices are required; but implicitly, it is a reminder that those old staunch ideals of religion and patriotism are easily shattered, and their fragility is disturbing if these are the foundations we're meant to stand on during times of war. This ending, in short, is an apt indication of how complex and striking Mrs. Miniver is: far from the pro-war message movie it could have been, this is a masterful portrait of how a village and its people are shattered by the demands of militarism.
US Release: July 3, 1942
US Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Director: William Wyler
Producers: Sidney Franklin, William Wyler
Writers: Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West, Jan Struther (based on the articles by)
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editor: Harold F. Kress
Cast: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Richard Ney, Henry Wilcoxon, Christopher Severn, Brenda Forbes, Clare Sandars, Marie De Becker, Helmut Dantine, John Abbott, Connie Leon, Rhys Williams