Text review available after the cut.
It’s not every day that I come across a movie so good and influential. In June 1942, a forgotten gem of a film was released that not only brought attention to the British home-front, the people who lived there, and the destruction, both physical and emotional, World War II was wreaking on them, but it greatly affected those who watched it, from the average cinemagoer to the highest official in the government.
The extremely distinguished director William Wyler helmed the picture. Wyler received 12 Best Director Oscar nominations and three wins in his lifetime, and he was the director of such films as Wuthering Heights (which was nominated for Best Picture in 1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (a Best Picture winner we’ll be getting to shortly), Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and oh, a little Best Picture called Ben-Hur.
Mrs. Miniver is based on a series of short fiction columns written by English author Jan Struther. They were published in The Times starting in 1937 and later collected into a book in 1939. The 1942 film Mrs. Miniver takes some of the characters and subject matter from Struther’s columns but is otherwise original in its story. Mrs. Kay Miniver (played by Greer Garson) is a wife and mother whose rural England life is flipped upside-down during the first few months of World War II. Her son, Vin (played by Richard Ney), is off to fight but not before he falls in love with a young woman named Carol (played by Teresa Wright). The relationship between Vin and Carol is touching and contains a plot twist that is as wonderfully executed as it is tragic. Carol is the granddaughter of a rich, prominent member of town, Lady Beldon (played by Dame May Whitty). Whitty’s character is old fashioned and lacks no small amount of snootiness and dislike for Vin and the rest of the Miniver’s. She is involved with an annual flower show where her prized rose always wins. This year, a kindly train station manager (played by It’s a Wonderful Life’s Henry Travers) is competing with her for the top honor. Meanwhile, Mr. Miniver (played by Walter Pidgeon) makes his contribution to the war by joining the Thames River Patrol and participates in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Amongst the German bombings that necessitate town blackouts and nights in bunkers, Mrs. Miniver has her hands full trying to keep her family together and safe while she attempts to maintain some level of normalcy in their lives.
The movie’s beginning is not the best. You need to setup the pre-war lives of this family before the war begins. This creates contrast for later. You need to establish the romance between Vin and Carol. If done right, this gets me invested in the two and their relationship, and I care if Vin might die on the battlefield, which is a constant concern of Carol. These are important factors and contribute to the success of the story. The film dilly-dallies a bit too much, though, and isn’t efficient with its establishing of the characters’ pre-war days. I was left wishing the film would just get to the point instead of taking so much time for setup. Mrs. Miniver also drops out of the story while Vin and Carol fall in love. The focus is away from the title character for long enough that I found myself distracted, wondering when Mrs. Miniver would become relevant to the story again. She does of course, and we get into the material about the war. Experiencing the war through the lives of civilians like Carol, the Minivers, and the rest of the town is not wholly new, plenty of films have done it over the decades – including two already covered in this series: Cavalcade (1933) and Gone with the Wind (1939). I would argue that this film is no less effective for doing something previously attempted and it succeeds more than Best Picture favorite, Gone with the Wind. It helps that the Minivers are relatable and sympathetic, traits I found characters like Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler rarely had even if I did care about the outcome to that movie. All the characters also act like real people, a trait not always present in the old style acting employed during the Golden Age. They are portrayed brilliantly by the whole cast, Pidgeon and Garson having a fantastic chemistry that can be touching, loving, but hilarious, as well.
Wyler treats the destruction, chaos, and general veracity of the war seriously and realistically. He doesn’t try to soften the blow or make things too Hollywoody. I felt the full force of what was going on around the Minivers emotionally and event wise. While there are some great speeches and pieces of dialogue talking about the film’s themes, Wyler doesn’t hit you over the head with what he’s showing you or the messages he’s trying to get across, which is another aspect I loved about this film. Near the end of the picture, we are presented with the town church that was pristine and wonderful when the picture opened but is now a ruin of half-kept-together support structures and walls. The destruction the church has undergone is shown with a simple pan up. That’s it. It isn’t talked about or made a big deal of. The frankness of this wartime image was like a sucker-punch to the gut that I was warned about in advance but nonetheless still managed to surprise me. During the scene in the church, Wyler cuts to the Minivers, to supporting characters, and to other townspeople who have all been worn down by a war that was still far from over when the film premiered. Wyler’s not just showing us the rubble and the broken glass. He’s opening a door into the hearts of these characters and presenting us with the wringer that has been working away at them for so long. All the while, Wyler never moves away from understatement. The characters are emotional but not in an over-the-top way. No dialogue is even needed. All their pain is clear on each and every face. It’s this subtlety and candidness that grants the film its power, and it’s what makes it long lasting, for the emotional suffering of people is timeless and always relevant.
Audiences weren’t the only ones who liked Mrs. Miniver. The picture was hugely influential at the time. It not only won six Oscars – Best Picture, Best Actress for Greer Garson, Best Supporting Actress for Teresa Wright, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography for a black-and-white film, and Best Director for William Wyler – but both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill loved the movie. The President had the film’s final speech translated into numerous languages and printed in leaflets that were dropped into enemy and occupied territories as a morale builder. Churchill later said the picture was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions.”
Despite all this, Mrs. Miniver, while being known to film-buffs, isn’t talked about much when Best Pictures are brought up. I am here to say that this incredibly real, illuminating, and often heartrending film should not only be discussed more by movie lovers and World War II aficionados but should also be placed up high as one of the best war films of all time.