Mrs. Miniver (1942)
The trajectory of this kind of film--happy normal (rich) people right before World War II leading to hardship and tragedy during it--is too familiar to play straight, and at first Mrs. Miniver seems to play it straight. The first half might drag a modern viewer through boredom to an actual nap. The conflict in the nice, happy lives of these upper crust Britons amounts to who will win a local rose competition. It's all sweet and well made, but that's hardly enough.
The acting is sustaining, for sure. The two leads, played by a wonderful Greer Garson (the first Mrs. Miniver of three) and her husband, a likable Walter Pidgeon, are completely convincing, warm, and eventually admirable. The supporting roles of the son (played by Richard Ney) and neighbor's daughter (Teresa Wright, a year after The Little Foxes and a year before Shadow of a Doubt) are first rate if somewhat typecast. The scene is England, and the year is 1939.
Eventually the action turns, and the hardships begin, and death visits the family as it did so often in the south of England early in the war. That first hour of calm pays off now by contrast. And as a sidebar, watch when mother and son kiss, on the lips, a little too warmly for mother and son. That's because Garson and Ney are hitting it off and they will soon marry (for all of four years).
Director William Wyler makes a highly professional job of all this. Certain moments will affect you if you let them, like the bombing around the family in their little shelter. This is the fear of every sweet and ordinary family in war, helpless and afraid, but doing their best to survive with calm and even humor. The cheer of the townspeople between bombings, and even as the warning of more planes is given, makes you swell up with admiration. If there seems to be a lack of warmth of effusive love all around (this is the typecast British style, of course) there is instead total goodness, steadfastness, and loyalty. There is the implication of love, and of caring, and doing what is right.
And that, above all, is the point of the movie. War time movies, Hollywood, European or British equally, had to support the cause. Sometimes it comes off metaphorically, as an artistic parallel to the truth, as in Casablanca, which really is a kind of "support the troops" movie. And sometimes it is more literal, showing soldiers in action or a population mobilized in every small way, and this is Mrs. Miniver, which has the lasting advantage of a human drama beyond mere fighting. Even the rose competition ends up as a lesson to the old guard to be willing to change with the times, to embrace your countrymen across class barriers, and do what is right.
Taken out of context, this is a commonplace drama made extremely well, a great entertainment. Its predictability (we don't know who will die but we know someone will) and its stylized, calm handling of really awful and terrifying scenes (a wounded Nazi in your kitchen!) make this something less than it might have been in other hands. Wyler is all about restraint, but even he might have made a more gut-wrenching version ten years later, once the war is won. But of course, that's not fair, because when it was shot it wasn't known who was going to win. To appreciate the movie, you have to see how a viewer with relatives on the battlefield would see it. Everyone is desperate to have their love affair while they can. People of all stripes had to wear an attitude of perseverance and survival. This movie ignores those who didn't play along, the down side to war, the civilian misdeeds. Yes, this is a positive movie, what the enemy would call propaganda. But in all out war, anything less would have been suicidal.
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