“Its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.” —Joseph Goebbels, admiring “Mrs. Miniver”
Goebbels is right! “Mrs. Miniver” is a propaganda flick. And it’s so so good.
The movie is about the experiences of the sweet and loving Miniver family. The happy brood lives in small town just upriver from London.
Director William Wyler takes his time in the first act, establishing how charming and mundane village life was in 1939.
The big drama is the annual flower show. The working-class train station master Mr. Ballard has the audacity to enter his rose into the competition. Ballard names the flower Mrs. Miniver, after the town’s loveliest matron. The town noblewoman – old Lady Belton – has won 30 years in a row and expects the trophy again.
There’s a silly, relatable scene where the Minivers’ eldest son Vin is returning from Oxford on summer break. Vin announces that he has become “socially conscious.” In other words, college has turned him into a judgmental, ungrateful, impolite know-it-all.
One year of college convinced Vin that England is still under the oppressive thumb of feudalism. Fortunately, one conversation with Lady Belton’s amazing granddaughter Carol deradicalizes him.
The lovebirds need to fast-track their courtship, because the UK declares war on Germany, and the Luftwaffe starts bombing nightly.
Vin promptly signs up to fly for the RAF. The film shows us that love and duty have transformed him from a petulant teenager into an admirable and happy young man.
But Vin isn’t the only character in harm’s way. Even in early 1942, it was clear that WWII was different from the Great War. William Wyler observes that this war is a clash between entire societies, with everyone at risk and everyone doing her part.
The climax of “Mrs. Miniver” is a triumph of subtle emotional manipulation. It takes place during the flower show, which the townspeople insist on holding despite the bombing raids.
The judges whisper to Lady Belton that they have given her rose the top prize. Because that’s the tradition.
The dowager walks up to the stage slowly and announces that the winner is Mr. Ballard and his rose Mrs. Miniver. It’s a beautiful moment. It gave me a shiver.
Mr. Wyler’s makes his point masterfully. A new spirit of sacrifice, stoicism, and selflessness has taken hold. While the war is turning Germans into twisted monsters, it is bringing out the very best in the English people.
William Wyler was a first-rate filmmaker. The most delicious irony is that he was born in Germany. He emigrated because he was Jewish. If the Nazi regime hadn’t been so awful, Wyler could have been making propaganda movies for their side.