Oscar Flashback: Mrs. Miniver won big 75 years ago — and its message of resistance endures
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Seventy-five years before that became a political battle cry for women rising up against harassment, cruelty, and abuse while asserting their own place at the leadership table in a time of uncertainty, a leading six Academy Awards went to a movie that celebrated a woman doing the same.
Mrs. Miniver is from another age, crafted with another set of standards and expectations, released just as the world was going through the upheaval of another world war and long predating the women’s rights movement that would come decades after. Still, the melodrama about an ordinary woman standing up to do her part against a looming threat serves the same inspiring role in 2018 as it did when it won Best Picture in 1943.
It offers hope. A sense that fighting back comes with a cost, but surrendering has an even steeper price. William Churchill famously claimed Mrs. Miniver was fortification for the Allied spirit, and today it’s still a reminder that even though we often make our stand as individuals, we are not alone.
Greer Garson won Best Actress for playing the title character, a middle-class British mother whose eldest son is training to be a fighter pilot while two much younger siblings remain at home. Her husband, played by Walter Pidgeon (nominated for Best Actor), ventures off in his boat to join the civilian rescue effort of troops surrounded at Dunkirk.
Although she never leaves the home front, the battle comes to her: Mrs. Miniver finds a wounded German pilot in the countryside and has a terrifying encounter with him as he lays out the threat of thousands of men like him tearing apart her country, bomb by bomb. For all his fury and boasts, he’s no match for this valiant housewife.
Director William Wyler, who won Best Director but was unable to collect the prize because he was in Europe helping make war films for the Allies, crafted an unsettling bait-and-switch. Mrs. Miniver begins like a playful comedy of manners — think Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story or Holiday — with the first hour devoted to the foibles of their family and the quirky inhabitants of their pastoral community.
The local drama is no greater than whose rose will win the local flower show: wealthy dowager Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty) or train station agent and churchbell ringer Mr. Ballard, played by Henry Travers, best known later as Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life. (In tribute, a similar plotline was lifted for a 2010 episode of Downton Abbey.)
But Mrs. Miniver lures the audience into these lighthearted plotlines only to shatter them.
“It’s a genre that’s being disrupted, which is a subversive thing for a Hollywood movie to do,” says film historian Mark Harris, who chronicled the making of the film in his 2014 book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, which was also adapted as a Netflix documentary this year. “Mrs. Miniver is a very nice, mild, domestic comedy that is interrupted and then disrupted and undermined by terror, and war, and tragedy. That’s why it’s so effective.”
The character began as part of a newspaper column by British journalist and author Jan Struther, who used Mrs. Miniver as a lens to explore the news of the day and British family life in general. She fashioned the character into a novel, and as the threat of the Third Reich began to rise over Europe and threaten the U.K., this fictional embodiment of domestic life and motherhood became an icon of resilience.
After Struther sold the film rights, the character and story kept evolving, buffeted by the rapid changes of the world. “They requisitioned the whole character. The original novel was not a war book. It was a pre-war book, and they just put Mrs. Miniver into a war setting,” says Struther’s granddaughter, Ysenda Maxtone Graham, who chronicled her life in the biography The Real Mrs. Miniver.
Despite the liberties the film took with her story, Struther did not criticize it. Its antiwar message was too important, her granddaughter says. “She made certain to tell her children and family they were never to criticize it,” Maxtone Graham says. “She could see the incredible effect it was having. And she thought it was doing her bit of war work, which she took very seriously.”
The screenplay was written in 1940, and its tone caused a tug-of-war between Wyler, who was staunchly anti-Nazi, and studio boss Louis B. Mayer, who preferred that MGM’s pictures avoid controversy. Mayer preferred to think of the movie as pro-British rather than anti-German, and wanted the confrontation between Mrs. Miniver and the wounded Nazi pilot to be less terrifying.
“That’s the scene Louis B. Mayer famously wanted to soften, and Wyler stood his ground,” Harris says. Dec. 7, 1941 tipped the argument in Wyler’s favor. With the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, America was no longer neutral. It was at war — on two fronts.
There was no more concern about being unfair to Germany. Wyler, as recounted in Harris’ book, said he was able to make the downed German “a typical Nazi son of a bitch. He’s not going to be a friendly little pilot but one of Goering’s monsters.”
Although parts of the film seem quaint today — the English village looks a lot more like an American suburb built on a soundstage, and the family’s home is comically large for a so-called middle-class family — Mrs. Miniver remains timeless in the way it depicts a sense of safety and tradition eroding. For half the movie, we see the community in a state of normalcy and comfort. But as fascism creeps closer, we see that sense of well-being replaced by a more chilling feeling: This is not normal.
Mrs. Miniver’s son, Vin (played by Richard Ney, who — scandal! — was having an affair with Garson and would go on to be briefly married to her) is in constant danger as he flies RAF missions over Europe, while his sweetheart Carol, (played by Teresa Wright, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the role) awaits his return so they can marry. While they are on their honeymoon, an air raid devastates the town, and Mrs. Miniver and her family cower in a bomb shelter as their home is demolished in a truly nightmarish sequence.
“The crampedness of it, the way they’re in a sort of parental crouch, they’re scared for their own safety. And they’re really scared about their kids,” Harris says. “ You feel trapped in there with them.”
In the final scene, survivors gather in the ruins of a local church for an inspiring sermon from the parson that President Franklin D. Roosevelt found so rousing that he insisted it be printed up and air-dropped over occupied Europe to inspire the resistance.
By the movie’s end, some have given their lives, but not necessarily the ones we expect. That’s another message of the film: There are no sidelines, no safe zones. There’s no hiding, only fighting back.
“It’s still all about the importance of doing one’s little bit,” Maxtone Graham says.
In other words, Mrs. Miniver persists. Always.