Mrs. Miniver (1942) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Mrs. Miniver is an American film about the beginning of World War II in Britain.  Greer Garson is Mrs. Kay Miniver, wife of well to do, British architect Clem Miniver played by Walter Pidgeon.  They live in a rural area outside of London on the Thames River where they enjoy a happy home life with their three children and the requisite maid and cook and beautiful home.

Their son Vin is just returning from Oxford while the two younger children are a boy and girl who look to be about six and ten years old respectively.  Early in the story we meet Carol Beldon, granddaughter of Lady Beldon, the local aristocrat who presides over the social world of the proper residents of their town.  Of course, Vin and Carol fall in love.  This sets the stage for the dramatic tension that defines the story.

This is 1939 and war has just been declared.  The realities of this slowly encircle the beautiful carefree life of the Minivers and then pummel it like the nightly bombings pummel their town.  Vin and Carol marry before he enlists in the Royal Air Force.  In a frank discussion Kay and Carol talk about acknowledging that it is very likely Vin will be killed in the war.  Carol is especially adamant that this reality makes her determined to charge with meaning and emotion their brief life together before his departure for active combat.

One of the most affecting scenes in the movie has Kay and Clem huddled in their backyard bomb shelter with their two young children during a bombing raid.  The children are trying to sleep in a small bunk bed while the parents sit up and try to distract themselves with chit chat about a book they enjoyed as children, Alice in Wonderland.  But the bombing runs keep getting closer and closer and finally the concussions are almost on top of them and the children become hysterical and their parents cradle them in their arms and try to sooth them while hell is unleashed around them.  Finally, the shelter door blows open and we realize that the bombs have been landing all around their house.  Finally, the attack ebbs into the distance and they sit dazed but alive.

Vin is given leave and he comes to visit his family.  He and Carol are given a room to stay in in the damaged home of his parents and they go to a local flower show where Carol’s grandmother’s prize roses are competing against a rose named the Mrs. Miniver by a local friend, the train station master.  At the suggestion of her granddaughter’s husband Lady Beldon is grudgingly convinced to allow her rival to win the grand prize.  And this happy moment is quickly followed by news of a massive air raid coming and Vin’s recall to his flight wing.

Carol and Kay drive him to his base and on the return trip home the two women are caught in the wreckage of an aerial dogfight and some machine gun bullets penetrate the car.  Carol is badly wounded and Kay rushes her home and calls for medical help by phone.  But shortly afterward Carol dies and Kay cradles her lifeless body and cries inconsolably.

In the last scene of the movie the townspeople are gathered in the heavily damaged village church and the minister preaches a sermon recognizing the deaths and injuries of so many of the parish including Carol and the station master who won the rose contest.  But he paints the war as a sacred duty to preserve their freedom and provide hope for a return to the happy lives they had before.

In many ways Mrs. Miniver was a war propaganda movie to prepare the American public for the realities of the war that the United States had just joined and to reinforce the bonds of friendship between the United States and England.  The Nazis, in the person of a German paratrooper are painted in a very negative light.  And the bombing campaign was meant to show Americans that fighting the enemy in Europe instead of at home was a great blessing for us.

Greer Garson’s portrayal is very effective.  In fact, the whole family is extremely likable and they naturally draw the audience’s sympathy at each stage of the film.  We are shown them both in their carefree earlier lives and in the midst of great tragedy and they always attract our good feeling for them.

My favorite scene takes place after Clem has been summoned by the local civil defense authorities to take his small motor boat down the Thames River.  He learns that they are looking for volunteers to pilot their boats to Dunkirk to rescue the surrounded British Expeditionary Force in France.  While he is away Mrs. Miniver is captured by an injured German paratrooper and held at gunpoint in her own home while the German demands food and drink and a coat to help him avoid detection once he leaves.  Luckily, he passes out from his injuries and she is able to take his gun and hide it and call the police.  Shortly after, Clem returns from his mission, exhausted, filthy and exultant.  Kay welcomes him and lets him bath and go to bed to fall into an exhausted sleep.  When he wakes the next afternoon, he asks how things went while he was gone and she tells him all was well.  While talking to the cook about the breakfast that Clem wants, she reminds Kay that there isn’t any ham left because she gave it to the German paratrooper.  When Clem overhears this, he is outraged accusing her of lying when she said that things were quiet while he was away.  He says, “What if he had a gun?”  And she flippantly replies, “Oh I just took it away from him.”  Now seeing that she is playing with him, as she bends over to straighten out the bed sheets, he administers a loud slap to her butt.  Now those were the days.  I have often wanted to do that to Camera Girl when she sasses me but she isn’t as amiable as Mrs. Miniver.  Her revenge might be too painful to chance it.  And for that reason, I am especially fond of this scene.

As I said at the beginning this movie is in a sense war propaganda but it was also a way for the Americans to reflect on the shared sacrifices that would have to be made in a war that had been thrust upon them after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I found the script and the acting to be honest and compelling.  I recommend this movie when you are in the mood for a World War II picture.

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