I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2012 the same way I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2011: watching a classic film at a theater in Tokyo that specializes in screening classic films. Last year it was the Astaire-Rogers lighthearted romp The Gay Divorcee. This year it was a rather more serious film.
I remember watching Mrs. Miniver a few years ago, before starting this blog, but I must not have been following it very closely because I didn’t remember just how good it was. It is obvious that the film was intended as wartime propaganda. Director William Wyler wanted to use the film to portray the plight of ordinary British citizens, who were being bombed almost nightly by the Germans, and win the sympathy of America, which hadn’t yet entered the war when the film went into production. Everything changed when America did enter the war. The script was revised, scenes were reshot and President Roosevelt even got involved, ordering that post-production be sped up so the film could be used to boost morale on the American . When the film was finished, Roosevelt co-opted the vicars moving speech which closes the film, asking that it be broadcast on the Voice of America radio program and having it translated into a variety of European languages and air-dropped over the enemy. As a work of propaganda, Mrs. Miniver lauds the heroism of ordinary English people, in historical events such as the Evacuation of Dunkirk, which I hadn’t known about, and I guess the average American in 1942 wouldn’t have known much about.
But the film is still powerful today, long after its propaganda purposes have ended. The power of the film comes from the focus on a single village, where the biggest news before the start of bombings is that there is a new contender to the trophy in the annual flower show. The handful of characters that are introduced are painted in detail, making their sacrifice clearer. Combat is never shown, except for a brief scene of fighter plane crashing into a tree. Heroism comes from the home front. The scene of the Miniver family huddling in their bomb shelter as shells explode overhead, shaking tinned food to the floor is truly frightening. This is because those thrown into harm’s way are not pilots and soldiers, but mothers and children.
There are weaknesses in the film, mostly because it was set in England but produced in Hollywood. At the time the Hollywood community was suffering a shortage of British actors, many of whom had gone back home to “do their bit” for the war effort. Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian, plays the head of the family and doesn’t even attempt a British accent. Teresa Wright, an American, tried, but not very successfully. On the other hand, we have Greer Garson, who deserved the Best Actress Oscar she won for the title role. Dame May Whitty is just as entertaining as she is in Gaslight and The Lady Vanishes, and her role has a little more dramatic depth than anything else I have seen her in.