Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942) is a classic film that defies definition. The intimate ways its production was sewn to politics and history make it a film unlike any other produced during that era and, perhaps, ever. It is a simple narrative: a domestic drama set in small town England experiencing the beginning of WWII. It is also one of the most intoxicating pieces of cinema committed to celluloid. Shockingly traumatic and emotionally beautiful, William Wyler’s film centers on the horrors of war from a maternal and distinctively feminine-angle, giving the viewer a crash-course on the woman’s experience.
Based on the novel Mrs. Miniver by Jan Strothers, Wyler’s film doesn’t make this story into a film where women are prone to fainting and/or incapable of independent survival. Classic cinema is wonderful but, unfortunately, many films of the era seem to equate motherhood, marriage and domesticity with weakness and subservience to men. The characters in Mrs. Miniver are the exact opposites of the “wilting flower” stereotype. This is a war film that features kickass broads.
The eponymous character, Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson), is realistically developed, evolving in a unique and dynamic way throughout the picture. From the get-go, it’s clear that she deeply enjoys her family, their life, and their cat. She likes to go shopping, has a fun and healthy relationship with her husband, Clem Miniver (Walter Pidgeon), cares for their children. When the war comes, the whole family is put through horrific nightmares and extremely harrowing conditions but Kay Miniver is the figure who stands strong and holds it all together, especially since the men are gone much of the time. Clem is gone to Dunkirk, their oldest son Vin (Richard Ney) joins up with the RAF after marrying Carol Belden (Teresa Wright), and they only come back on occasion.
It’s not a flashy film but the cinematography is ecstatic. It is during the most tragic scenes where cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg is really allowed to shine, causing the viewer to be painfully aware of how gutting this film is. From the 9-minute bomb shelter sequence that may be one of the best in the history of cinema to the car ride with Kay and Carol, Mrs. Miniver is a film that delights the eyes while immersing you in distress. War is a strange land but Wyler and Ruttenberg allow it to be experienced in a way that is uncommon and non-exploitative.
It is no surprise that Mrs. Miniver won 6 Academy Awards and was nominated for another 6. Miniver took home the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Garson), Best Supporting Actress (Wright), Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography (Ruttenberg). A long-standing rumor exists that Greer Garson caused the Academy to set the limit on acceptance speeches at the awards ceremony due to the duration of her thank you. This is inaccurate, as the time limit was set later once the ceremony began to be televised. In response to those grumbling about the length of her oration, Garson stated that the disgruntlement stemmed from the fact that she had “fractured a long-standing rule which was that a winner should simply say ‘thank you’ and then dissolve into a flood of tears and sit down.”
Initially bought by Eddie Mannix at MGM for producer Sydney Franklin, Mrs. Miniver started out as a vehicle for Norma Shearer. Shearer turned down the role as she objected to playing a mother old enough to have a son who could go off to war. Franklin then approached MGM star Greer Garson for the part. Garson was also a bit cranky at the thought of playing the mother of a twenty-year-old- she was only 32 at the time! But she accepted and then…Oops! Scandal! She ended up falling in love with Richard Ney, the actor playing her son. The two were considerate enough to wait to get married until after the film was released. The only person who got upset about their nuptials was Louis B. Mayer, as he thought it would hurt Miniver’s box office. But nothing could have. History saw to that.
William Wyler was contracted by Sydney Franklin to direct and he was thrilled at the opportunity to work on this “war film without battle scenes.” Known to be a difficult man to work with, Wyler was also perceptive and clever. He pissed off Louis B. Mayer by causing Greer Garson to storm off at least once. Legendary art director Cedric Gibbons was at his wit’s end trying to work with Wyler and his constant criticisms of Gibbons’ carefully designed sets. Wyler was set on a realism that Gibbons was unable to provide given the circumstances. The film was initially supposed to be shot at the studio in Denham, England but that was impossible because of the wartime conditions. So Culver City it was. Wyler spent a lot of time in L.B.’s office defending his decisions. William Wyler was no dummy; he was just a perfectionist. This was difficult on the cast and crew. People like Walter Pidgeon and producer Sydney Franklin spent a lot of time playing referee on-set, making sure that teatime happened, and actors were calmed. It was a delicate balance.
William Wyler saw Mrs. Miniver as a unique project. He was also a no bullshit guy. When presented with this, he viewed it as a chance to do something that Hollywood wasn’t doing: make a goddamn stance. At this point, the US wasn’t involved in the war and Hollywood was trying to stay neutral, “just entertainment.” Wyler was not that guy. He was an immigrant, he knew what the threat was, and he wasn’t going to play nice. He would take a story about somewhere far away (England) and bring it home, underscore the reality that everyone was facing (or about to face). Wyler was a realist. And he was political.
He was also 100% aware that he was making propaganda. “To make propaganda, you must be successful and your film must be successful,” Wyler stated in William Wyler: The Authorized Biography, “The most satisfaction I get out of a film aside from its critical and financial success is its contribution to the thinking of people, socially or politically. In this sense, every film is propaganda. But, of course, propaganda must not look like propaganda.” This film ended up being more powerfully propagandistic than Wyler could have dreamed. Hitler’s own Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, felt that Mrs. Miniver was so effective that he wrote a Nazi version entitled Das Leben Geht Weiter (Life Goes On) modeled on the Wyler film, and wrote in length about it in his diaries. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a message to the Cocoanut Grove where the Oscar Ceremony was being held in 1943 responding to Mrs. Miniver’s award sweep. He wrote, “We have succeeded in turning the tremendous power of the motion pictures into an effective war instrument without the slightest resort to the totalitarian methods of our enemies.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was rumored to have said that the propaganda value of Mrs. Miniver was “worth more than a flotilla of destroyers.” And, of course, the most famous Mrs. Miniver propaganda story is that of President Roosevelt’s actions after viewing the film. When the film ended, the Commander-in-Chief requested that the dramatic sermon from the final scene in the bombed-out-church be translated into multiple languages and airdropped over German-occupied territories.
Regarding the production of Mrs. Miniver, Teresa Wright said, “We all felt and sought to convey the profound determination that dramatized those days…It was a picture produced in the shadow of headlines and those of us who appeared in it never forgot it.” Many films evolve as they are made. Some directors are more supportive of improvisation; sometimes new scenes get added at the last minute. These are part of the filmmaking process. But what happened on the set of Mrs. Miniver was entirely new and different. The film itself, its very production and all those involved, were directly affected by what was taking place in the world outside. When filming began, on November 11th, 1941, the US was not involved in WWII and Hollywood was ostensibly neutral.
Louis B. Mayer was dedicated to maintaining a politically nonpartisan stance. As a studio mogul, conflict and controversy were not words he liked associated with MGM product. He pleaded with Wyler to tone bits of Mrs. Miniver down since the US was not, technically, at war with anyone. “Just show how tough things are in England. They’re just having a rough go of it, OK Willy?” was his general attitude. Wyler would not be moved from his goal of giving the film a strong political bias. This came to a head over one particular scene in which Greer Garson is forced to confront an injured Nazi soldier. Mayer felt the scene, as shot, was too “anti-German” and MGM “didn’t make hate movies.” Wyler responded strongly, telling him, “If I had several Germans in the picture, I wouldn’t mind having one who was a decent young fellow. But I’ve only got one German. And if I make this picture, this one German is going to be a typical little Nazi son-of-a-bitch. He’s not going to be a friendly pilot but one of Goering’s monsters.”
A few weeks later, on December 7th, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the US was suddenly at war. Wyler was called once again into Mayer’s office. This time he was told he had full support for the scene and to “keep up the good work.” Suddenly, Wyler’s politics and vehement anti-Nazi stance had become fashionable at MGM. His eyes must’ve rolled so hard. But he kept on filming with the studio’s full blessing.
Mrs. Miniver is considerably modern. Released in 1942, this film should be lauded for its continued relevance. 75 years after its release, this movie is powerful on a multitude of levels. It doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of war (which films had been doing up until that time) and it presents women as actual people and fully developed characters. Unlike many films, Mrs. Miniver doesn’t force a neat conclusion on the story but allows the narrative to simply exist because it is a reflection of very real people going through very real times. The man who played the Vicar, Henry Wilcoxon, had a brother who died in Dunkirk and he himself was already enlisted in the Navy when Wyler called him back to the set to rewrite the final sermon (which they did; what you see is the final rewrite). Real people, real experiences.
Mrs. Miniver is a Hollywood favorite, with the captivating Greer Garson and the handsome Walter Pidgeon. But the way in which the film and history conversed is monumental.