Mrs. Miniver, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1942, is often treated somewhat dismissively by film historians. The film tells the story of the Minivers, an upper middle class British family whose peaceful lives are changed forever by the start of World War II. When the film initially went into production, the U.S. was still a neutral country. As shooting commenced, the U.S. edged closer and closer to entering the war and, as a result, the script was continually rewritten to make Mrs. Miniver even more pro-British and anti-German than before. The finished film was released four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, by which point Mrs. Miniver had gone from being domestic drama to being both a celebration of British resilience and the Allied war effort. “If the Minivers can do it,” the film told audiences, “why can’t you?” As a result, Mrs. Miniver is often described as being merely effective propaganda.
Well, Mrs. Miniver may indeed be propaganda but it’s amazingly effective propaganda. I recently DVRed it off of TCM and I have to admit that, as a result of those previously mentioned film historians, I wasn’t expecting much. But I was in tears by the end of the film. Yes, World War II has long since ended. And yes, I could watch the movie and see all of the tricks and the heavy-handed manipulations that were employed to get the desired emotional response from the audience but it didn’t matter. The film is so effective and so well-acted that you’re willing to be manipulated.
(Of course, it helps that there’s not much nuance to World War II. As far as wars go, WWII was as close to a fight between good and evil as you can get. If you can’t celebrate propaganda that was designed to defeat the Nazis, then what can you celebrate?)
As for the film itself, Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, matriarch of the Miniver Family. Her husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect. When we first meet Kay and Clem, the only thing that they have to worry about is the annual village rose show. (Henry Travers — who everyone should love because he played Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life — plays the eccentric stationmaster who is determined to win with his rose.) However, that all changes when they go to church and the vicar (Henry Wilcoxin) announces that Great Britain has declared war on Germany.
Life changes. Soon, Kay must hold her family together while bombs are falling from the sky. When Clem is away, helping out with the Dunkirk evacuation, Kay comes across a wounded German flyer (Helmut Dantine) in her garden. The flyer demands that Kay give him food and when she does, he snarls that the Third Reich will be victorious. He then passes out from his injuries, allowing Kay to take his gun and call the police. (Reportedly, this scene was rewritten and reshot several times, with the German becoming progressively more hateful with each new version.)
Kay’s son, Vincent (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force. He also falls in love with Carol Beldon (Theresa Wright), the daughter of the aristocratic Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). Over the concerns of Lady Beldon, Carol marries Vincent and she becomes the second Mrs. Miniver. They do so, despite knowing that Vincent will probably be killed before the war ends.
Of course, there is tragedy. People who we have come to love are lost, victims of the German onslaught. Throughout it all, the Minivers (and, by extension, the rest of Great Britain) refuse to give into despair or to lose hope. The film ends with them singing a hymn in a church that no longer has a roof and listening as the vicar tells them why they will continue to fight.
And yes, it’s all very manipulative but it’s also very effective. I did cry and the film earned those tears. In many ways, Mrs. Miniver is perhaps most valuable as a time capsule. It’s a film about World War II that was actually made during the war and, as such, it provides a window into the attitudes and culture of the time. But, if the film is valuable as history, it’s also just as valuable as a well-made melodrama.
I’m not sure if I would say that Mrs. Miniver deserved to defeat Kings Row for best picture of 1942. But it’s still an undeniably good film.