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Mrs. Miniver (1942)

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Page 3
The Minivers in church

After a deadly German bombing raid, the citizens of Belham, including Lady Beldon and the Miniver family (right), gather in the parish church to hear words of wisdom from the Vicar, beginning with a reading from Psalm 91.

Psalm 91: 2-6 (King James Version)

2 I will say of the LORD,
     He is my refuge and my fortress:
     my God; in him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,
     and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers,
     and under his wings shalt thou trust:
     his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;
     nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;
     nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

The "People's War" Sermon

MRS. MINIVER closes with what has become one of the most famous sermons in cinema history.  Delivered in the ruins of the bombed out parish church, The Wilcoxon Speech (named for actor Henry Wilcoxon who plays the Vicar in the film and who, with Wyler, helped write the speech the night before the final day of shooting) succinctly and eloquently explains to both the congregation and the film's larger audience that this war is "not only a war of soldiers in uniform; it is a war of the people, of all the people."  As such, there is no room for isolationism.  The war must be fought and "with all that is in us."  The sermon was reprinted in such national magazines as Time, Look and P.M., and President Roosevelt ordered it broadcast over the Voice of America and leaflets of it dropped across Europe. (*4)

America needs your money.
Buy defense bonds and stamps every pay day.

-- Postlogue to MRS. MINIVER.

Critical and popular reaction to MRS. MINIVER was universally laudatory across the United States, as expressed in the reviews reproduced in the MRS. MINIVER Articles section and the quotations below:

  • "There has been nothing to touch the understated eloquence of this magnificent and moving dramatization of the Battle of Britain ... few works succeed in impinging on a time of crisis with stunning force and meaning. Mrs. Miniver is one of these." --Howard Barnes, The New York Herald-Tribune (1942). (*5)
  • "In the production by Sidney Franklin, the direction of William Wyler, the un-affected performances by Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon and their scarcely subordinate peers, an extraordinary amount of taste, discretion, and artistry has been displayed to make this one of the most important and beautiful film dramas of the season." --Variety (13 May 1942).

Although MRS. MINIVER (1942) did substantial business in Britain, critics and audiences on the other side of the Atlantic, while appreciative of the effort, were not as enamored with the film as their American counterparts.  Among their complaints: the stereotypically comical depictions of the working class characters (Gladys, the maid, and Ada, the cook, for example); the attempt to describe the Minivers (who own a pleasure boat and have a son at Oxford as well as two servants) as a typical, middle-class English family; the apparent obliviousness of MRS. MINIVER's characters to the heightening tensions and inflammatory events on the Continent which preceded Britain's declaration of war; and the Minivers' wardrobe which seemed ostentatious and overly-American to ration-blighted British audiences by the time the film reached England in July 1942.  Nevertheless, British praise for the film was still forthcoming:

  • "...propaganda worth a hundred battleships." --Winston Churchill. (*6)
  • "It is just as well, perhaps to anticipate criticism by admitting that Hollywood's Mrs. Miniver (Empire) has its faults as a study of English life in wartime... No gents outfitters of our acquaintance supplied Mr. Miniver with his pyjamas... When these details are recognized, however, the plain fact remains that Mrs. Miniver is the most moving, sensitive, and inspirational film that has come out of the war yet in any country." --C.A. Lejeune, The Observer (12 July 1942).
  • "Of all the war films which have been seen in Edinburgh, this one gives the truest picture of life as people in the London area knew it in 1940-41... Greer Garson's Mrs. Miniver is a very real person -- charming, graceful, and expressing in her attitude to life the feelings of countless English wives and mothers.  Walter Pidgeon as Mr. Miniver is also well cast, and the Lady Beldon of Dame May Whitty is an extremely good study of "Her Ladyship."  The other characters are well played, although Richard Ney's Vin seems American rather than English." --The Scotsman (27 October 1942).

Over the sixty years since MRS. MINIVER's 1942 release, the film has suffered a good deal of ahistorical criticism, even from such unlikely quarters as its own filmmakers and stars.  Shortly after director William Wyler completed work on MRS. MINIVER, he joined the Army Signal Corps and was overseas on Oscar night (March 4, 1943) when he won the Best Director Oscar for his work on the film.  In October 1942 during an interview with the BBC, Wyler described how his firsthand experience of the war enabled him to realize the inadequacies of MRS. MINIVER which he now felt "only scratched the surface of war... I don't mean that it was wrong.  It was incomplete." (*7)  And later, as she found her career somewhat stifled by the noble, stoic image of her MRS. MINIVER character, Greer Garson also expressed some misgivings about the movie.  But by far, the greatest damage to MRS. MINIVER's reputation as a film was done by the reactionary anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam War era thirty years later which universally condemned blatantly pro-war movies (like MRS. MINIVER) as well as screen personae (like John Wayne), even from previous eras, as hawkish influences on contemporary American foreign policy.  Luckily however, with the dawn of the 21st century, cooler heads prevail, and MRS. MINIVER (1942) can once again be appreciated both for what it offered audiences of that certain period of American (and world) history and for the insights into the past which it continues to provide modern audiences who cannot help but find themselves caught up in the lives of the film's timeless characters.

Elizabeth's favorite moment in MRS. MINIVER (1942): Toby reaching out and noisily banging the door handle on his way out of church -- just one of many examples of the human touches in MRS. MINIVER which make the film work.

Footnotes:

  1. Herman, William Wyler 235.
  2. James Robert Parish and Gregory Mark, The Best of M-G-M, The Golden Years: 1928-1959 (Westport: Arlington House Publishers, 1981) 142.
  3. Cecil B. De Mille, The Autobiography of Cecil B. De Mille (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1959) 336.
  4. Herman, William Wyler 237.

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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