Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Mrs. Miniver (1942). 133 minutes. Directed by William Wyler. Starring Greer Garson (as Kay Miniver), Walter Pidgeon (as Clem Miniver), Teresa Wright (as Carol Beldon), Dame May Whitty (as Lady Beldon), Reginald Owen (as Foley), Henry Travers (as Mr. Ballard), Richard Ney (as Vin Miniver), Henry Wilcoxon (as the vicar), Christopher Severn (as Toby Miniver), Brenda Forbes (as Glenda), Clare Sandars (as Judy Miniver), Marie De Becker (as Ada), and Helmut Dantine (as German flyer).

Mrs. Miniver is an Academy Award-winning movie about the rural English experience during the early years of World War II. Especially in its first half, the movie can be overly sentimental, but I was moved by the dramatic transformation of the characters’ lives as the war progresses in the second half. I was also captivated by the way that the British countryside, which we might think of in the abstract as a tranquil and pacific place, morphs into a dangerous and battle-torn environment in this movie under the onslaught of German air raids. Ultimately, the dramatic nature of the landscape’s transformation and the episodes specific to combat serve as effective counters to the film’s more syrupy elements.

The Miniver family (consisting of mother Kay, father Clem, and children Vin, Toby, and Judy) lives in rural England in the fictional village of Belham. As the movie opens, Kay Miniver is told by Mr. Ballard, an attendant at the train station and an admirer of hers, that he has named his prize rose after her and will enter it in the annual village flower show. Soon a neighbor, Carol Beldon, comes to ask Mrs. Miniver if she will persuade Mr. Ballard not to enter the flower show; Carol’s grandmother Lady Beldon has always won first place and is not eager to encounter competition. Kay’s son Vin berates Carol for her request, but Carol’s response is polite and warm. Soon she and Vin become romantically involved.

England enters the Second World War, and Vin joins the air force. The Miniver family is challenged by Vin’s participation in dangerous air fights, Clem’s involvement in the battle of Dunkirk as a civilian, Kay’s encounter with a wounded German pilot in their backyard, and devastating air raids that damage the Minivers’ property. Meanwhile, Vin and Carol are to be married, and although Lady Beldon at first objects to their union, she is eventually persuaded to accept it. In spite of the war, the annual flower show is held, and Lady Beldon decides to present Mr. Ballard with first prize for his Miniver rose, even though she learns privately that she is the true winner. The show is broken up by an air raid, and when Kay and Carol drive home, Kay is killed by stray gunfire. The Minivers and Beldons remain a united front, and the movie ends with them shown sitting together in their bombed-out church, participating in religious services as planes fly overhead.

Mrs. Miniver indulges in a fair amount of sentimentalism, especially in the first half of the film. It strikes me that there are two primary ways that it manifests this weakness. The first is in the slightly too-cute depiction of English rural life, which is most prominently embodied in the flower show competition that is alluded to and anticipated all throughout the movie. The Minivers’ community continues to raise flowers and persevere in spite of the German attacks on their region, and this comes to symbolize the indomitable spirit of the entire country. But the movie relies a great deal on this light trope to say something weighty, with the result that the theme seems inadequate, disproportionate, and a little precious. Consider the culminating garden show itself, where Lady Beldon gives up the prize she has been coveting all throughout the movie to Mr. Ballard. The Germans strike just as Mr. Ballard is returning to his seat with his trophy, and Lady Beldon has to explain in no uncertain terms that the Axis powers do not value garden shows. It is true that the English are attacked by the Germans for their values, and country pastimes are guided by important cultural principles, but I assume that anyone who has even vaguely studied World War II would more readily locate core English values less in the cultivation of a perfect rose and more in the English desire to remain free from tyranny, a rejection of authoritarian government, and an unwillingness to bow to the whims of military superpowers.

The other weakness in Mrs. Miniver relates to the Miniver family dynamic itself, which tends towards the schmaltzy, especially insofar as it relates to the protagonist. Take the way that Kay Miniver, played by Greer Garson, is introduced to us, for example. At the beginning of the movie, before the onset of the war, we see her fighting her way across busy city streets to reach a department store where she snatches up a ludicrous hat with an artificial bird on it. Kay passed up this hat earlier in the day and regretted her decision, but now that she has purchased it, she worries about her husband’s reaction to her acquisition; she hides it from him and attempts to broach the subject of the new hat with difficulty. Surely the idea here is to give us a sense of the modest extravagance of the Minivers’ pre-war lives, their disposable income and disposable time. But the sequence has the disadvantage of devoting a good deal of screen time to making Kay seem like a frivolous housewife.

A much better scene occurs midway through the film when the tenor of the story has changed and Kay’s experiences grow more dire; there it is easier to detect why Greer Garson won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the family matriarch. With her husband away at the battle of Dunkirk, Kay encounters a wounded German flyer who has been hiding in her yard. He threatens her with a gun and demands food. Inside the house, when he collapses from exhaustion and pain, she takes his gun and calls the police. But when he comes to, she takes pity on him and attempts to care for his wounds. She is shocked when he speaks at length to her in English with crazed devotion to the German cause. She has turned him in, he says, but there are thousands more who will take his place. This scene is part of Kay’s education in world affairs: in this war, her assumption that an enemy flyer is just a German counterpart to her own son Vin is misplaced, even dangerous. It is easy to see her registering this as a result of the encounter and developing as a character.

Garson also does do an outstanding job of conveying wartime sorrow in the scene where the Miniver family piles into its bomb shelter during a German air raid. We see Kay and Clem Miniver attempting to keep a certain amount of normalcy going. Kay has brought coffee in a thermos, which she pours into teacups from the house. She reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to her two small children as they fall to sleep, and we hear the parents reminiscing about the first time they read the novel. Clem rereads the passage Kay has just read aloud about the glorious days of a childhood summer. It is easy to see that those days are far off now, both for the parents and the children they read to, and as the night in the bunker proceeds, we experience how hellish the air raids have become. The sound of the German planes grows nearer and nearer, and soon the shelter is shaking with nearby explosions. Horrifically, the door to the shelter pops open—we fear that the danger of the bombing will reach inside to the screaming family clutching at each other in the dark. The planes eventually disappear, but when we next see the house, it is substantially damaged. It is hard to imagine how they can continue to live there. And yet this is the sort of destruction that is unfolding everywhere in England at the time, and soon we see the Minivers rebuilding. They do not abandon their house, and they do not flee their small town. Surely that is at least as important as, and more meaningful than, the flower show.

There is another striking scene that takes place when Kay Miniver is driving her daughter-in-law Carol back to their house after the air raid at the flower show. Kay is trapped on the road at night, unable to drive with the car lights on because of the blackout. As she inches along in the dark, she and Carol can hear the air battle taking place overhead. Thinking it safest if they pull over and stop, Kay and Carol sit on the side of the road and watch as a plane crashes and is engulfed in flames in a nearby field. Carol is horrified—without her articulating it, we know she is registering that someone is burning up inside of the crashed plane, and she laments with great distress that it could be her husband Vin. We are so focused on the possibility that Vin could die in this raid (and the movie seems to be building up to it for so long) that we are likely shocked to see it is Carol, within the safety of the Miniver family car, who is injured when she is struck down by gunfire from one of the planes.

The scene is strong both because it encourages us to think to ourselves of the full ramifications of grisly death in battle and because it surprises us with a poignant reversal. But it is not merely the surprise that affects us. Perhaps we took for granted the stability and constancy of Carol’s presence in a world where what was once predictable has been transformed into the precarious and the unknown. She has the bravery to fall in love and marry when the other characters know her husband could be taken from her any day by just such an air raid. The cruel reality is that everyone in England is as vulnerable as Vin, and Carol’s strength, her politeness and grace in all circumstances, her conviction that her marriage is right in spite of family pressures—these are all upended in the end by the forces of war. Much like the Miniver house with its architect patriarch (a seemingly invincible structure that is intertwined in the lives of the protagonists) Carol’s destruction is a sad symbol of how much life for all of the characters has changed.

The final scene in the church, where we hear Carol’s death commemorated as well as the demise of Mr. Ballard the flower show winner, is moving in part because it begins with shots of parishioners entering and sitting in their accustomed pews. This is an image that we have become acquainted with due to an earlier scene. It is only as the camera pans away from the parishioners and around the church that we realize the structure has been horribly bombed. Its walls, ceilings, and pulpit have been destroyed. No one in the scene comments on the building, and the priest conducts the service as usual. The camera pans up to a gaping hole in the ceiling, where we can see fighter planes passing by.

The propagandistic aspect of the film is strong in this moment, but its efforts independent of explicit messaging to inspire hope are actually rather moving, unlike the efforts of a propaganda film, especially if we reflect on how uncertain the war was in those early years. When it is in its element, Mrs. Miniver manages to be inspiring and offer hope without relying on clichéd messages about families and without offering false hope or happy endings. Fundamentally, it suggests that perseverance is the greatest virtue in wartime, but it is honest about what must be endured as part of the effort of persistent resistance. Mrs. Miniver is more sophisticated than propaganda, offering more but promising less, and when it achieves this level of forthrightness, it is not hard to see why it was so successful in its own time.