The United States of America
In my never-ending quest to find forgotten classic films, I am consistently astonished to discover great pieces of cinema that are sitting right in front of our noses. For instance, did you know that there have been eighty-four movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture? Think about that for a second. In the history of the Academy Awards, there have been a whopping eighty-four films that Hollywood has distinguished as being the best of the year. That makes eighty-four films that could logically be considered timeless classics. And yet, it is stunning how quickly we forget about them. Of course, everybody remembers certain winners such as Casablanca (1943) and The Godfather (1972). But most of the films that win Hollywood’s highest honor are doomed to be forgotten. How many people have honestly heard of, say, Cavalcade (1933)? The Great Ziegfeld (1936)? How about Gigi (1958)? Not only did that film win Best Picture, it took home an astonishing nine Academy Awards! Or what about Marty (1955), the second and last film to ever win Best Picture and the Palme d’Or? Of course one could make the argument that the Academy Award for Best Picture is not the best measure of a film’s quality. After all, any award that is decided based on popular vote is destined to have a few clunkers. But the fact remains that at some definite point in the past, all of these films that I have mentioned were toasted as the greatest film of the year.
Therefore, I have decided that it is my duty to help bring the spotlight back to some of these great films. I have already featured one of these films on this sight: The Life of Émile Zola (1937). The film that I wish to focus on today was released five years after Dieterle’s film took home the gold. Upon its release, it won six Academy Awards and boasted on its poster that it was “Voted the Greatest Movie Ever Made.” Nowadays, the general public has seldom heard it. This film is none other than William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver.
Believe me, I wanted nothing more than to make my own screenshots for this review. But the makers of my DVD copy of the film made this impossible by including an encoded file that scrambled all of my own screenshots. Since I am no computer geek or programmer, we'll have to make due with Google Image Search.
The story is based off a fictional English housewife created in 1937 for newspaper columns named Mrs. Kay Miniver. Living a very comfortable life in the outskirts of London with her well-to-do family (you can tell they are well off because their house has a name: “Starlings”), Miniver’s life is thrown into turmoil by the start of the Second World War. Her oldest son, Vin, quickly joins the Royal Air Force and becomes one of the Few; the pilots who held off the German Blitz during the Battle of Britain at horrific personal expense. Her husband Clem is called in the middle of the night to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, that miraculous operation wherein over 300,000 trapped British and French soldiers were rescued from the shores of France from the rapidly advancing German Army. Later that morning, Miniver is threatened by a downed German pilot who holds her at gunpoint. And finally, Miniver’s entire family huddles in a shelter as they are very nearly killed by Nazi bombs.
It would be one thing if the film focused solely on the character of Mrs. Miniver. But Wyler wisely positioned Mrs. Miniver within a much larger cross-section of British society. We meet characters such as the Miniver’s live-in housemaid Gladys who tearfully sees her husband off to the front lines. There’s Lady Beldon, a local aristocrat, and her daughter Carol who falls in love with Vin and eventually becomes his wife. Lady Beldon is locked in an epic struggle with kindly stationmaster Mr. Ballard whose only offense was to dare to enter a rose (which he named the “Mrs. Miniver”) into a local flower competition which she has perennially won for the last several years. And finally there is the local vicar (played by Henry Wilcoxon) who unites the entire community in the final scene with a heart-breakingly powerful sermon in the ruins of his bombed-out church.
The film is indeed a piece of wartime propaganda. Upon its completion President Roosevelt ordered it to be rushed to theaters so that it would inspire Americans to support the war effort. The film, released in 1942, actually began production two years earlier before the United States entered the war. As a result, the film was continually reworked as the US’s involvement became more and more inevitable. This most obviously manifested itself in the scene where Miniver is cornered by the German pilot. As the film was revised, the German was made more stereotypically evil and unrepentant. The encounter became more stand-offish. Finally, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the scene was changed again to include a shot where Miniver slapped him.
And yet, to dismiss the film merely due to its status as propaganda would be foolish. Mrs. Miniver is a genuinely moving piece of filmmaking. Take, for instance, the scene where the Miniver family is being bombed. As they try and sleep in a minuscule shelter, the sounds of bombs gets louder and louder. Suddenly, the entire shelter shakes. The kids awaken, the family cat dashes, the door flies open. Their young son Toby speaks with the clarity that only children can muster: “They almost killed us that time, Mommy.” It is a devastating scene. And yet, it speaks to the film’s overall message: that the strength and unity of Britain, in both its families and communities, is what will help it prevail in the end against evil.
Mrs. Miniver is just one of the numerous Best Picture winners to be largely forgotten. But it remains a triumphant work of art for those who are willing to look for it. For although it was made explicitly for World War Two audiences, its heart, its soul, its message is one that will resound for ages.