Sunday, June 04, 2017

'Mrs. Miniver' Is Dated But Still Relevant

"I know how comfortable it is to curl up with a nice, fat book full of big words and think you're going to solve all the problems in the universe. But you're not, you know. A bit of action is required every now and then."

Carol (Teresa Wright)

William Wyler's "Mrs. Miniver," which arrived in theaters on this day 75 years ago, occupies an elevated position in the history of World War II movies.

And it contains what was long the most intense battle scene I personally had ever seen in motion pictures (until "Saving Private Ryan" and its graphic depiction of D–Day). But its intensity was on a psychological more than visual level — which may still make it the most intense of its kind.

There may be no more powerful battle scene — and excruciating in its length and growing sense of claustrophobia — than the one in which the Minivers (Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson) and their children huddled in a crude bomb shelter waiting out a German air raid. In the grand British tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip, they tried to pass the time with conversation about mundane topics — like knitting — while the tension from the hellish cacophony of bombs and bullets from outside built to an unbearable level.

It was all the more powerful as an illustration of how war can touch anyone; it has no regard for age, race, gender or social status. The Minivers lived in the comfortable world of the upper class, a world where Mrs. Miniver could calmly go about her daily routine while her husband participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk, but they were brought to their knees by World War II the same as their cook and maid.

As the vicar observed in a pivotal sermon near the end of the movie, "There's scarcely a household that hasn't been struck to the heart.

"And why?"
he went on to ask. "Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?"

Aren't these the questions many ask today when people are dying in airports, at concerts and in restaurants and nightclubs rather than battlefields?

The movie hasn't aged particularly well, but the message is still a good one: War truly is hell and is not made less so by the knowledge that it was started by someone else. If there were plans to remake "Mrs. Miniver" today, the characters probably could use some work — Garson's character particularly seemed a bit naive, especially when she confronted the downed German paratrooper in her kitchen, but perhaps that illustrated how off guard many people were caught by the Nazi threat and the reality of war.

Her daughter–in–law in the movie, played by Teresa Wright, seemed far more grounded in reality than Garson's character (who, for example, refused to permit Nazi bombing raids to ruin her roses — later in a climactic bombing raid that set up the vicar's sermon, a rose that had been nominated in a local flower show competition was named for Mrs. Miniver).

Garson did her part for the war effort propaganda that "Mrs. Miniver" really was. Her character was brave and noble — and in real life she did her part for the war effort at home, too, but Winston Churchill said "Mrs. Miniver" did more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers.

"Mrs. Miniver" received a dozen Oscar nominations and won half of them. The movie won Best Picture. Wyler won Best Director. Garson won Best Actress (and delivered a record–long acceptance speech). Wright won Best Supporting Actress (beating co–star Dame May Whitty). The movie also won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Black–and–White Cinematography.

Pidgeon was nominated for Best Actor but lost to James Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Richard Ney, who played Garson's son in the movie, became her husband the following year. The union lasted until 1947.