Jan Struther, who created Mrs. Miniver for a series of newspaper columns later published in book form, was also the author of a number of Anglican hymns, including “Lord of All Hopefulness” (a staple in our family’s evening devotions).
That biographical detail puts an interesting light on the religious elements in William Wyler’s Oscar-winning adaptation, Mrs. Miniver. Not that it’s a particularly religious film. Still, a certain English piety runs through key moments.
Both the announcement of World War II and the climax are set in the local parish, and the vicar applies Psalm 91 (“Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day”) to the dark days ahead. The hymns, too, are chosen for dark times: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Onward Christian Soldiers,” the latter defiantly sung at the climax in a bombed-out church. (The quietly reflective “Lord of All Hopefulness” is not among them!)
Although it won a half dozen Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Mrs. Miniver is best remembered as a WWII propaganda film that helped stoke American support for the British in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Despite this, it’s remarkably well-crafted, sensitively directed by William Wyler with an effective rhythm of trivial incidents and well-observed character moments seguing to occasions of high peril.
The film chronicles both the day-to-day lives and the war effort contributions of a well-to-do English family, the Minivers (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon), in the London area.
Following Struther’s stories, which began with lighthearted domestic vignettes and grew gradually grimmer under the encroaching shadow of the war, the story opens with trivial concerns — Kay Miniver debating the extravagance of a fashionable hat; a new breed of rose for an annual flower show cultivated by the local stationmaster (Henry Travers, Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life) — and grows gradually more serious as the war comes home.
Some of my favorite character moments involve the punctured pretensions of young Vin Miniver (Richard Ney), newly returned from university full of high ideals he hasn’t fully assimiliated. “When I think of the class system that exists in this country…” he begins indignantly, interrupting himself to turn on the housekeeper with exasperation: “What is it, Gladys?”
At the other extreme of the class system is the local grand dame, Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty, The Lady Vanishes), and her granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright, Pride of the Yankees), who poses so formidable a challenge to Vin’s worldview that they wind up married. (I’ve never seen “Downton Abbey,” but recently I started calling Lady Beldon “the dowager duchess” even before reading somewhere that the show stole Mrs. Miniver’s flower show scene!)
Highlights of the war sequences include Kay Miniver taking on a crashed German pilot (Helmut Dantine) while her husband (Walter Pidgeon) assists in the Dunkirk evacuation, a harrowing air-raid sequence in the Minivers’ bomb shelter and a tense scene with Kay and Carol pinned down in a car under enemy fire at night.
Only in the climax, as the vicar addresses his grieving flock in the bombed church, does the film shift into all-out propaganda mode. By then, though, Wyler has fairly earned his closing statement.
There are a couple of historically interesting propaganda shorts, both about 20 minutes, on the dangers of loose lips (“Mr. Blabbermouth”) and the importance of international law enforcement cooperation (“For the Common Defense”). There’s also a tantalizingly brief newsreel excerpt of Garson’s Oscar acceptance speech, famously the longest such speech in Academy history!
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.