Cinema Classics: “Mrs. Miniver” (1942)

Winston Churchill once claimed that the film “Mrs. Miniver” did more for the war effort than a “flotilla of destroyers.” It is certainly a wonderful film as well as a bit of a historical relic, an American-made movie giving a glimpse into what the citizens of Great Britain were up against, right before the U.S. got involved in World War II.

The story is a portrait of a middle class English family. There’s the titular Kay Miniver (Greer Garson), her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon), their two younger children Toby and Judy, and their older son Vin (Richard Ney). Their life is idyllic, and a major part of the story involves Vin falling in love with, and soon after marrying, Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), granddaughter of the wealthy Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). As war approaches, Vin enlists in the Royal Air Force, with Carol convinced that he will be killed but promising to treasure each moment with him. Clem takes his boat to help in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Kay is confronted by a wounded German pilot hiding in her garden, and the family endures a harrowing air raid.

Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) and husband (Walter Pidgeon)

“Mrs. Miniver” builds to a climax that appears tragic on the surface, but actually served to inspire those involved in the real war to keep fighting. At the end of the movie, the town vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) delivers a powerful speech, one that Wilcoxon and director William Wyler, who strongly supported the U.S. joining the war against Germany, rewrote up until the moment it was shot. It soon became known as the Wilcoxon Speech, and copies of it were dropped all over Europe, while President Roosevelt used it for propaganda purposes.

In fact, much of “Mrs. Miniver” was rewritten and reshot several times. Production on the film began in 1940, when the U.S. still had a neutral stance on the war, but as the U.S. became increasingly anti-German, changes to the script were made to reflect that. For instance, the scene between Mrs. Miniver and the downed German pilot was made more confrontational, until, as the final film reflects, she slaps him across the face.

“Mrs. Miniver” was a huge success, topping the box office in both the U.S. and UK. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But as he was announced the winner of the Oscar for Best Director, William Wyler was on his way overseas, having joined the Army. He later said that, after having participated in the war himself, the film was too tame in its portrayal. These feelings were reflected in another amazing war movie centered on civilians, Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece “The Best Years of Our Lives”, which follows American soldiers and their struggles to return to normalcy after the war.

“Mrs. Miniver” is currently available to rent on all digital platforms. Runtime: 134 minutes.

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