Mrs. Miniver (review)

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The End of the Innocence

Was World War II the end of childhood for our society, for the whole world? I’m too young to even remember Vietnam, never mind WWII, but it seems that as awful as the Great War and the Great Depression were, it’s not until the 1940s that popular culture suddenly took stock and said, Yup, we’ve crossed that line into scary adolescence.

Mrs. Miniver is a strikingly unsentimental account of the theft of England’s innocence in the early days of WWII. Kay and Clem Miniver (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon) head up a stalwart middle-class family in the small town of Belham. It is the summer of 1939, and village life plods along as idyllically as it always has. Plans for the local flower show proceed apace. Vin Miniver (Richard Ney) returns from classes at Oxford and falls in love with local girl Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright) — her grandmother, Lady Beldon (Dame May Witty) sees the coming war as an opportunity for “dreadful little persons to make themselves important” and believes that the Germans wouldn’t dare bomb England.

They do dare, of course, and the town’s naïve, gung-ho attitude does get burnished a bit under the assault to its way of life. But they persevere. The local grocer becomes the air raid warden. Vin joins the RAF. Clem disappears off on a secret mission to Dunkirk. And when it’s more than German bombs that comes to Belham, Kay keeps her cool while her world falls apart around her.

Perhaps the reason that WWII was different, for Europeans at least, was that war had left the battlefield and come into the places where we live. Under such circumstances, the behavior of ordinary people — such as when Kay and Clem, to calm themselves as much as their two small children, read aloud from Alice in Wonderland in their bomb shelter while explosions wrack the world above — seems no less brave for its necessity.

It’s been said that Mrs. Miniver was such potent propaganda for Britain that it influenced the American decision to join the war. More than half a century later, it’s still not at all surprising. Mrs. Miniver remains a powerful film.

amended 03.08.99:
I’ve been reminded that Mrs. Miniver couldn’t have influenced the American decision to join the war as it was released after US troops had already been sent to Europe. Nevertheless, many sources do say that the movie helped bolster the American public’s support for the Allies, so the point that it had a powerful affect at the time of its original release is still a valid one.

Oscars Outstanding Motion Picture 1942
unforgettable movie moment:
Mrs. Miniver confronts an unexpected visitor in her garden.

previous Best Picture:
1941: How Green Was My Valley
next Best Picture:
1943: Casablanca

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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