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.
“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’.”
Son of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was a French film director, screenwriter, actor, producer and author. He made more than forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960’s. La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion, 1937) and La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) are his best known films.
Other films of Renoir which I have seen are La Chienne (The Bitch); Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning); The Southerner (1945), one of Renoir’s American films, which I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and The River (1951), Renoir’s first color film, which was shot in India and is based on the novel of the same name by Rumer Godden.
The River is my favorite Renoir film; I have seen it many times over. It is a coming of age story of three young girls in colonial India. I love the cinematography, the local color, and the music. The soon to become famous (and marvelous) Indian director Satyajit Ray was an assistant on the film.
Rumer Godden (1907-1998) was a prolific English author who grew up with her three sisters in Narayanganj, colonial India (now in Bangladesh). Her father was a shipping company executive. The film is true to these biographical facts. It beautifully portrays female adolescence, about which I would ordinarily have little insight or understanding. As compelling as the film is, I had the experience of reading the novel (being motivated to do so by the film) and, though it was well written, I had trouble understanding parts of it.
From the opening notes of the film, you feel like you are in another place (India), another culture, another time (colonial India in the 1920’s). You are immediately caught up in it. The film has a sweep, dramatic pace, and compelling details of plot, setting, and character that keep the viewer riveted. The music is outstanding.
A Wikipedia entry states:
A number of Godden’s novels are set in India, the atmosphere of which she evokes through all the senses; her writing is vivid with detail of smells, textures, light, flowers, noises and tactile experiences. … Her plots often involve unusual young people not recognized for their talents by ordinary lower or middle-class people but supported by the educated, rich, and upper-class, to the anger, resentment, and puzzlement of their relatives.
This past week, I had the opportunity to see, for the first time, one of Renoir’s best films, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1935), in a newly restored print, shown at the Film Forum in New York. It’s a wonderful film, one of Renoir’s best, I feel. In fact, I would say that it is more “modest” than La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu, and I liked it better. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is based on story by Jean Castanier that was adapted for screen by the well-known French writer Jacques Prévert.
Watching the film reminded me what I like most about Renoir:
— wonderful characters; so many of them all together “on stage” at the same time joshing and jabbering and interacting in all sorts of ways, often trying to one up/get the best of one another; flirting, boasting, conning another. Funny, authentic, original, they keep popping up, doing something whacky, touching, or inimitable, or saying something piquant; and returning a minute or two later
— it’s wonderful to hear them speaking French
— the characters are completely individual and inimitable; so idiosyncratic; Renoir exhibits a love of humanity in all its imperfectness and wonderful individuality
That’s what I like best about Renoir: his apparent love of people with all their foibles (as well as Paris). At the end of Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. … (Well, I won’t spoil the plot.) As in the Japanese director Ozu’s marvelous films, Renoir’s characters seem to be REAL; they don’t seem to be actors or to be acting. It’s hard to believe that they are not the same persons as the characters they represent.
Compare Hollywood. Is there, was there ever, such a Hollywood actor?
on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)
by Roger W. Smith
I will begin this essay with some comments on what I feel the development of aesthetic sense and critical standards, as they apply both to literature and to the cinema, entails.
To put it as simply as possible: in order to have a deep appreciation of anything cultural, you have to become acquainted with the BEST works. Nothing less.
Let’s consider literature for a moment. Consider the case of someone whose acquaintance with books is limited to reading works such as The Thorn Birds, Jacqueline Susann, The Bridges of Madison County, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and similar works.
I have nothing against such writers and works or their readers per se. It’s enough that people love to read and take pleasure from it. I am not a snob.
But, if that’s all you have read, you will never have
a frame of reference;
a yardstick; or
models of excellence
for purposes of comparison when it comes to appreciating literature in full.
You won’t be able to distinguish between what is perhaps entertaining and/or diverting and what is truly great. You will never know the difference.
The same comments apply to cinema.
Let’s say that in the past you saw films like The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, or Kramer vs. Kramer and regarded them as classics. Perhaps you still do.
I have news for you (I’m sorry if I sound arrogant): THEY AREN’T. For why I feel this way, see my discussion of directors and films below.
Extending this comment broadly (i.e., to both literature and film), I would say that it’s like comparing War and Peace with Ben-Hur or Anna Karenina with Erich Segal’s Love Story. You have to have read or seen classics to know the difference.
I only began to understand and appreciate film after moving to New York City in the late 1960’s, just after graduating from college.
I owe my appreciation and acumen about films, such as they are, to a friend I made during my early days in New York: William S. (Bill) Dalzell.
Bill Dalzell was a self-employed printer who did printing for left wing groups such as Women’s Strike for Peace. (An aside: he was apolitical, though he was sympathetic to such groups’ goals.) He was a very cultured person and a lover of film, as well as of New York.
He taught me, single handedly, to appreciate film.
Bill Dalzell had a personal list of his five all time great films:
D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)
German director Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938)
Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944, with a Part Two released posthumously in 1958; in my opinion, Ivan the Terrible is an even better film than Eisenstein’s better known film The Battleship Potemkin)
Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word; 1955)
Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)
(See YouTube links below.)
Thanks to his advice, I saw them all at least once.
Truly classic films such as the above five are in a league of their own. Few people have seen them or even know of them.
What are some of the ingredients of great filmmaking? Not being a film critic, I can’t say really – I am not qualified to. But my friend Bill made an observation to me once that I remember. He said that films work their magic by “sight and sound.”
Consider the great directors. Most use music very effectively, use it sparingly. They don’t overdo it. But music is a key part of the aesthetic experience. And, the great directors don’t use schlocky music. What you get is Prokofiev, Monteverdi, Schubert, and so on, plus awesome original music. How many treacly film scores have we been subjected to by second rate directors?
To Bill Dalzell’s list of the greatest films, I would like to add and comment on a few favorite directors of my own.
Yasujirō Ozu, a Japanese film director and screenwriter
He is not nearly as well known as he should be, though his critical reputation is very high. He is my personal favorite among directors, perhaps outranking the five listed above.
Of course, it was Bill Dalzell who first alerted me to Ozu’s films. He made a comment that turned out to be true. In Ozu’s films, nothing happens.
They are films about ordinary Japanese people — businessmen, housewives, families — living ordinary lives. One watches them going about their daily lives – there is no melodrama — and, instead of being bored, by some magic which the director, Ozu, achieves – which one can only marvel at – the viewer is never bored. Instead, one is totally engrossed.
It seems like a certainty that you are watching real people go about their lives, a documentary of sorts, as if the director had entered a home or workplace in Tokyo and turned on his camera. It’s hard to believe – one totally forgets – that one is watching actors.
There is wonderful music, simple and enchanting, used sparingly.
It is wonderful to hear Japanese spoken.
There is a sense of place. The films are shot in Tokyo. One feels that one is there, in the houses with people sitting on mats, in bars where businessmen are drinking copiously, in the narrow streets with their colorful lights and signs and paper lanterns.
Ozu has a great visual sense, but like everything else in his films. his cinematographic technique is not obtrusive. He is not showing off. You are having a wonderful aesthetic experience without quite realizing it.
There is no distance between you and the film, because everything is done simply and with great clarity. There is no bombast, no showing off, no cinematographic techniques being used simply to impress. And, there is no overacting, as is, sadly, the case with most American films.
I do not have a single favorite Ozu film. My favorites include:
Late Spring (1949)
Early Summer (1951)
The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952)
Tokyo Story (1953)
Late Autumn (1960)
An Autumn Afternoon (1962; Ozu’s final work)
My other personal favorite is the French director Robert Bresson. My favorite Bresson film – his films are all of the highest quality — is Au hasard Balthazar (1966).
The Balthazar of the title is a donkey. It is a sort of “Black Beauty” story (the reference here being to the novel by Anna Sewell). The characters are plain people – some of them mean spirited and petty minded, if not downright cruel – in a French village.
The haunting soundtrack features the second movement (Andante) from Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D. 959. Bresson uses music sparingly, but extremely effectively.
Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most striking in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to Hollywood conventions. Rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene.
Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films. …
He invented the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat … even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground, which necessitated the use of special tripods and raised sets. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.
Ozu eschewed the traditional rules of filmic storytelling, most notably eyelines.
[Bresson is] known for a spiritual and ascetic style. Bresson contributed notably to the art of cinema; his non-professional actors, ellipses, and sparse use of scoring have led his works to be regarded as preeminent examples of minimalist film. …
Three formative influences in his early life seem to have a mark on his films: Catholicism, art and his experiences as a prisoner of war. …
Bresson made only 13 feature-length films. This reflects his meticulous approach to the filmmaking process and his non-commercial preoccupations. ….
Bresson’s actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of “performance” were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw. This, as well as Bresson’s restraint in musical scoring, would have a significant influence on minimalist cinema. …
Bresson is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. His style can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous “actor-model” methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors.
What I most like about Ozu’s films is his appreciation of moments of silence or non-action. So much is allowed to happen in those moments! They are almost always missing from American films, which seem to require constant noise and movement. You didn’t list it, so I’ll add another favorite: “Good Morning,” which is a comedy.
Thanks for bringing Ozu’s film to the attention of your readers!
I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.
Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.