1940s, 3/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Review, William Wyler

Mrs. Miniver

I remember liking this a whole lot more when I first saw it more than fifteen years ago. I hadn’t thought of the film much over the ensuing years, and revisiting it as an older man, I see some of what I adored of the film at the time. However, I also see a weird melding of two different plot threads with very different tones and thematic focuses. I think there’s a clash that undermines the film a bit. On the other hand, the portrait of the quiet toughness of the British middle class is so engrossing as embodied by the central character and her family that I can’t help bet get swept up in their tale.

Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) and Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) are a middle class family living in the small suburb of London called Belham. The opening of the film feels like a harmless sitcom from the 50s where she buys an expensive hat and he buys a new car, and they have to try and figure out how to reveal the information to each other. It’s the exact kind of nice little storytelling that would define easy sitcoms for a long time, and it’s a nice introduction to the characters, their little world of Belham, and their family. There’s the station master Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers) who has grown a prize rose that he named after Mrs. Miniver, the local remnant of the aristocracy Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty) and her granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright), and the Minivers’ eldest son Vin (Richard Ney), a student at Oxford who comes away with a new phase every few weeks (the newest being the unfairness of the remnants of the feudal system in England).

The main distraction in the film is talk and the eventual putting on of the local flower show which pits Mr. Ballard against Lady Beldon who has won the rose contest for thirty straight years. The little dramas around this involve Carol coming around to the Miniver house where she tries to convince the elder woman to talk Mr. Ballard out of entering the contest at all (which fails and puts her and Vin on the path towards love) and Lady Beldon being a general nuisance about the whole affair. It’s all so light and inconsequential in the face of looming war and the outbreak of the conflict that the movie feels completely out of balance. The thematic focus is about the coming together of classes, but the whole approach is so completely removed from the idea of the war that it feels like a completely separate idea.

That’s helped not at all by how the bombings and the excursion to Dunkirk by Clem in his personal boat are presented. They don’t really involve Lady Beldon at all, so the class questions fall away completely. The way the Minivers face the blitzkrieg of London isn’t through the common image of neighbors huddling in a tube station, it’s the family sitting alone in their own personal bunker removed from their house. That’s understandable because it’s the suburbs, practically the countryside, and there are no tube stations to be found. However, the real kicker is how Dunkirk is handled. Taken out in the middle of the night to cross the Channel, Clem disappears for five days. Left alone with her family with no news and nothing but worry, Kay only gets consolation from Mr. Ballard one morning that leads to a tense little scene where a German flyer, who’d been hunted by the locals for weeks, shows up in the Miniver garden.

Never mind the individual merits of these moments (which they all have), the clash with the whole flower show is too evident. The flower show stuff demonstrates the classes trying to bridge their historical divide, but the way the war presented shows the yeomanry alone, especially on the home front. They don’t intertwine, so we have this nice look at suburban Britain, navigating a changing world, and on the other is this surprisingly harrowing look at suburban Britain during the earliest days of World War II. Each works well enough on its own (the blitzkrieg stuff is much better), but they just don’t work that great together.

That being said, I’ve complained enough, because I do really like this film. The flower show stuff, the stuff that shows life trying to continue on as normal in the face of war coming to their doorstep in the form of bombs and a downed German fighter pilot, is enjoyable to watch. It feels very sitcom-y and too light, but watching the budding romance between Vin and Carol, especially in conjunction with Vin’s entry into the RAF (which places him at an airbase right near home because of course), is the best part of this section. It’s the one that most fully manages to balance the sense of danger of the war with the efforts to live life normally. The death of one of them gives a nice ironic twist to the sense of danger and how it was always closer to home. The partial destruction of the Miniver house by a bomb provides a good look at the stiff upper lip of the British when dealing with loss.

The best of the film deals fully with how the home front has deal with the encroaching war. This is mostly done by very strong uses of sound design. There are instances of Mrs. Miniver looking to the sky as airplanes fly overhead, listening for Vin’s signature of shorting out his engine over the house, the moments dragging out creating real tension. The best part is when the family, mother, father, and the two smallest children, huddle in their bunker alone as the bombing gets closer. They try to make on like normal, talking about knitting and Alice in Wonderland, but it becomes too much and the explosions start happening just outside their door, knocking it open, eliminating the thin border between their remnants of order with the war outside. It’s all done with just sound and performance, and it’s really dangerous and terrifying. The scene with the German pilot is strong as well, leaving Kay alone with a desperate, dying enemy soldier holding a gun. It’s strong stuff.

The ending of the flower party stuff is heartwarming and nice, but there’s some tonal whiplash as we go from bombings, near death, and destruction to pristine a garden party where the drama is about Lady Beldon gaining some modicum of humility in the face of a yeoman (Mr. Ballard) doing hard, honest work in his own small bit of England. It’s nice, but it’s weird to have this after the real danger that we felt with the Miniver family in their bunker.

So, Mrs. Miniver is a somewhat odd combination of light comedic melodrama and a straightforward look at the destructive power of war even far from the front. Perhaps part of the problem was the source material, a series of short stories by Jan Struther, that a team of screenwriters tried to bring together into a single narrative. The film works overall, but it could have been more. However, I do get its effect contemporaneously, especially when you account for the ending speech by the vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) that is rather stirring in its call for continued backbone in the face of potential destruction. At the beginning of a worldwide conflict that was sweeping across the globe, without any sense of how things would turn out, this call for strength was important, probably important enough to get people to paper over the tonal issues with the film. I get it. I like it. I think it’s good. But this movie didn’t win Best Picture because people thought it was the best movie of the year.

Rating: 3/4


5 thoughts on “Mrs. Miniver”

  1. Another favorite movie. I don’t remember the class thing being played up so much, maybe it didn’t register as much with me. I saw the flower thing as more representative of the lightness of pre-war concerns and then how serious things got and how minor that all became, plus that they still had the contest as trying to hang on to some of their traditions even with the war going on.

    My favorite scene in the movie is when Lady Beldon come over to the Miniver house to more of less say her daughter isn’t marrying any middle class person. You can really see the class difference, where Beldon is all blustery and sure of her self, Mrs. Miniver polite, deferential, respectful, but still quietly forceful, really well written scene.

    I also like how Wyler created the concern over one character being hurt and possibly killed and then flipped that, as in – even civilians aren’t safe.

    Wyler later felt he didn’t portray the war harshly enough, I suppose that would have come after he was over there himself. If my memory is still working, it was screened for FDR and he asked that it be released immediately in theaters to increase American support for our own participation in the war.


    1. I remember getting really into it the first time I watched it, probably feeling similar to the way you consistently feel towards it. There’s so much to admire, and I could be talked into the idea of the people trying to hold onto their prewar lives in the face of war, but I think it may be part of what Wyler was talking about when he said that he had portrayed war too lightly.

      Mrs. Miniver’s quiet strength, that old school demonstration of the qualities of the British yeomanry, is the kind of thing that artists seemed to be constantly praising in art and drama from the interwar period. Noel Coward’s two major film adaptations, Cavalcade and This Happy Breed did the same thing, and it brings such a melancholy feeling to everything because that yeoman strength was to erode and die away (perhaps on purpose) as the decades after Britain’s win in WWII came and went.

      There’s a lot to admire, for sure.


  2. I liked this movie a whole lot more when I saw it in college. Today…I wasn’t in love with it.
    Greer Garson is slim, lovely and sublimely feminine. Henry Travers is wonderful. Walter Pidegeon….how did this guy keep winding up in Best Picture winners and Best Picture nominated films? Is it because he’s tall? He’s like a UK knockoff of Gary Cooper, with a side of ham.

    This IS film as mythmaking, as with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, fiction is stronger than fact. This idealized idea of Britain was used to prop up support on the home front and the themes and scenes were made stronger for literal propaganda reasons after Pearl Harbor (the German airman scene went through repeated re-shoots). Even Goebbels, who knows a thing or two about the subject of propaganda, considered Mrs. Miniver to be the supreme propaganda film up to that point. I don’t hate Nazis any less now than I did at 22, but I suppose I’m more obstinate about being tugged around by strings now at 52. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not English. Or maybe I just know what England turned into after the war.

    Anyway, this just didn’t stir me. Like you with ‘How Green Was my Valley’ there’s an emotional connection, love if you will, that I have with John Ford’s film but don’t have with William Wyler’s.

    And William Wyler is a good filmmaker…not great with actors, but starting with The Little Foxes, continuing through Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, he made a lot of really good films. Mrs Miniver isn’t just a good film, it might be a great film by many measures. I just didn’t love it.


    1. It’s interesting that we had such similar reactions over similar periods of time regarding Mrs. Miniver. I, too, loved it in college. And now, I find myself somewhat distant from the events on screen.

      The propaganda parts are probably the parts that work best. They’re the ones that are truest to the reality of the home front, and the film is begging for a more muted, cinema verite approach to the material as a whole. Not necessarily in terms of camera usage (that’s not how Wyler made movies) but in terms of approaching character and situation. The people trying to hold onto the garden party in the face of bombings is a good idea, but it’s all so bright and cheerful as it plays out. There’s something off about that stuff right next to the night time raids where houses are destroyed and people die. It doesn’t feel like a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, it feels like it comes from a different time entirely. That’s really my problem.

      I don’t know why I didn’t have that problem when I first saw it, but I can’t shake it now.


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