I recently saw the American film (which I had always assumed, mistakenly, was English) Mrs Miniver (1942) on television. I have seen it many times.
The film, as described in a Wikipedia entry, “shows how the life of an unassuming British housewife in rural England is touched by World War II.”
Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) and her family live a comfortable life at a house called “Starlings” in Belham, a fictional village outside London. The house has a large garden, with a private landing stage on the River Thames at which is moored a motorboat belonging to her devoted husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon), a successful architect.
As World War II looms, their son Vin (the oldest of three children) returns from the university. As the war comes closer to home, Vin feels he must “do his bit” and enlists in the Royal Air Force, qualifying as a fighter pilot.
Together with other boat owners, Clem Miniver (Walter Pigeon) volunteers to take his motorboat, the Starling, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation.
Early one morning, Kay, unable to sleep as Clem is still away, wanders down to the landing stage. She is startled to discover a wounded German pilot hiding in her garden, and he takes her to the house at gunpoint. Demanding food and a coat, the pilot aggressively asserts that the Third Reich will mercilessly overcome its enemies. She feeds him, calmly disarms him when he collapses, and then calls the police.
Soon after, Clem returns home, exhausted, from Dunkirk.
Later, Kay Miniver and her family take refuge in a shelter during an air raid, and attempt to keep their minds off the frightening bombing by reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Clem refers to as a “lovely story” as they barely survive as a bomb destroys parts of the house. They take the damage with nonchalance.
At the end of the film, villagers assemble at the badly damaged church where their vicar affirms their determination in a powerful sermon:
We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. … The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?
I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.
The members of the congregation rise and stoically sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” while through a gaping hole in the bombed church roof can be seen flight after flight of RAF fighters in the V-for-Victory formation heading out to face the enemy.
It’s one of my favorite films. I love the slow, deliberate, unfrenetic pace; the feeling of another time; the nostalgia and the pathos. (And the lack of blood and guts seen in films such as Saving Private Ryan, which I hated.)
I can relate to the ethos and the decency of the characters; their values.
Does that make me a retrograde snob? Perhaps it does. Well then, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, I’m an atavistic elitist.
Scenes I love:
When the stationmaster wins first prize at a local fair for his rose and they all sing “for he’s a jolly good fellow!” Warms the soul.
Walter Pigeon with his quiet dignity and his pipe almost perpetually in his mouth.
Greer Garson: so beautiful, the perfect mother. Quiet; caring, understanding and sympathetic; yet no shrinking violet. Reminds me of my own mother in looks and personality.
When Clem Miniver and his fellow boat owners row off, silently, in the stillness of the night, in darkness, to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s a beautiful scene made effective by silence. Boats being rowed. No engines. Stealing off, as it were.
The Anglican church services. The hymns. Reminds me of hymn singing in church when I was growing up. (When I was simply experiencing the rousing music and was too young to be evaluating it or attempting to deconstruct religion.) “Onward Christian Soldiers,” sung by the congregation in the film, sends shivers up my spine.
The sermons given by the Anglican minister. His words. Eloquent. Beautifully expressed. The last church service shown in the film, at the conclusion, in a church with a roof with a big hole in it from German air raids, concludes (the scene, that is) with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”
There is one scene I don’t like: when the German pilot is discovered hiding in the Minivers’s garden. He’s a stock figure, a fanatical Nazi. The scene is contrived.
The film is propagandistic. But, while there is pathos, it is not melodramatic. And, the people ring true. That’s what I like most about it.
— Roger W. Smith
“Mrs Miniver: The film that Goebbels feared”
by Fiona Macdonald
9 February 2015
“We will come. We will bomb your cities.” So bristles a character in the film Mrs Miniver. A German pilot who had been shot down in the chocolate box English village of Belham, he momentarily brings the horrors of World War II to what is largely a domestic drama.
… Adapting the original treatment, [director William] Wyler changed the character of the German pilot from that of a sympathetic victim of war to someone much more aggressive. Thomson tells Gambaccini: “Wyler took it upon himself to toughen that character up in the scripting and the shooting – and in fact he really turns into a Nazi. The story goes that Louis B Mayer… was alarmed when he saw this footage… Wyler is reputed to have said ‘Mr Mayer, do you know what’s going on — this man is a shadow of the nastiness that’s going on there’.”
Sounds very interesting. I shall look out for this film on TV. Thanks, Roger!
Thank you, Elisabeth. Try YouTube. Best wishes, Roger
I just checked. It looks as if the film is still under copyright protection, and one would have to purchase it or wait for it to be on TV; YouTube in not an option.
You should see the recent film Dunkirk, if you haven’t already. Would be an interesting comparison.
Thanks, Pete. I have not.