Tribute to Human Courage:
‘Mrs. Miniver' Expresses the Inspiring Strength and
Dignity Of Ordinary Civilians Under Total War
by Bosley Crowther
The New York Times June 14, 1942 page VIII 3
It is too plain for repetition that the most effective "special
pleading" possible is that which stimulates the emotions and quickens
a response from the heart. Let a man's sympathy be enjoined and he is definitely
on your side. Make him identify his own life with your sorrow or suffering
and the set of his mind is as rigid as though he had experienced it himself.
On this account, if no other, "Mrs. Miniver," now at the Music
Hall, is by far the most expedient motion picture yet made in Hollywood
about this war, and certainly the most powerful stimulus to a sense of
its realities yet seen.
For here, as was done in small measure in "London Can Take It,"
the brilliant British short, is given a clear, compelling picture of the
impact of war upon civilians -- a picture made all the more credible by
the plainly essential fact that it shows that impact upon people who might
just as soon be you. Gently and without the hanky-panky so common in "heart-rendering"
films, it tells how the war invades slowly the pleasant life of an English
family in a peaceful town, far removed from what would be considered the
military front, and how modern warfare in the sky becomes the perilous
burden and the spiritual test of an entire nation.
Breathing English Air
The comment has been made, on good foundation, that "Mrs. Miniver"
is not a full account of the "people's war" in Britain -- that
its range is too narrowly confined to a class and environment which is not
expressive of those who have borne the brunt of the suffering. Literally,
that may be true. There is nothing in this picture about the devastation
hurled from the skies upon the miserable slums of East London, about the
Midlands workers blasted from their homes. The Miniver family, whose fortunes
are the particular topic of the film, live in middle-class luxury against
a tranquil, conservative background. Their home is remarkably comfortable.
They keep -- before the war -- two in help. Mrs. Miniver blithely indulges
in an expensive and frivolous hat, and Clem, her architect-husband, buys
a racy second-hand car. Vin, their older son, comes down rather airily
from Oxford. And the little town of Belham, in which they live, is like
a poem by Rupert Brooke.
But that does not say that the Minivers and the other good folk of Belham
are not absolutely typical of the English in their walks of life. It does not
deny that they image an appreciable portion of the body politic -- a portion
which, however one may see it, still forms a solid national nucleus. And,
particularly, it does not alter the most important fact that these are the
people whom we, in this country, can most widely understand and appreciate.
That, in a picture which is clearly designed to draw our natural sympathies, is
far from a limitation. Concentration would be a better word.
War and Peace
As a matter of fact, the powerful impact of this film upon our tensile
emotions is due precisely to the contrast which it draws between easy peace
and war, between gentle, almost irresponsible, living and the obligation
of courage which strife impels. We who are still enjoying comparative security
on our own home front are much more affected by a picture which shows a
sudden violent disruption of pleasant life than we would be, say, by a
picture which showed the peacetime underprivileged handed more woe. It
is not a question of indifference. It is simply a matter of dramatic values.
And it is a regard for these latter which distinguishes "Mrs.
Miniver" as a film. It is, to put it mildly, a stunning piece of cinema
artistry, beautifully written, beautifully directed and beautifully acted
by every one in it. The excellence of its expression has been ascribed
to understatement and restraint, which is just a loose way of saying that
it is natural, literate and devoid of those tasteless excesses by which
so many films become absurd. William
Wyler, who directed it for Metro,
has made it glow with warmth and human dignity.
Take, for instance, the thrilling sequence having to do with the
evacuation from Dunkerque. In the middle of the night Clem Miniver is roused
from sleep by a call to report with his motor launch at the yacht club,
presumably to go on river patrol. At the yacht club, however, he gets orders
to proceed with other boat-owners to Ramsgate, and down the placid, night-shrouded
river we see the boats of England rendezvous. Their mission is cloaked
in mystery; their strength is as imperious as a wave. At Ramsgate a howling
destroyer comes looming out of the night, and from its deck a disembodied
voice informs the boatmen that they are to cross to the French shore, there
to take off Britain's Army, which is fighting with its back to the sea.
That is all this picture shows of England's most gallant action in
this war -- that and the return of Clem Miniver to his own dew-beaded wharf
five days later, his little launch scarred with marks of battle and his
body drooped with fatigue. His wife and youngsters, in night clothes and
bathrobes, run to greet him in the dawn, and the children gaze in wonder
at the bullet holes in the launch. "Then it was all in the papers?"
Clem says to Mrs. Miniver. "About Dunkerque? Yes," she replies.
"Thank Heaven," he says, "I won't have to tell you."
Nor does the picture. You have grasped what it was -- and what it meant.
The foregoing remarks are not intended to give you an abstract of
"Mrs. Miniver," nor a standard appreciation of the brilliance
of Greer Garson, Walter
Pidgeon, Teresa Wright,
Henry Travers and every
one else in it. Those are matters which you must surely discover for yourself
in time. This is but a notification that here, in one eloquent film, is
contained as fine a comprehension of what total warfare means to folks --
folks like ourselves and our neighbors -- as is likely to be expressed.
© 1942 The New York Times