I’m in a bit of a mood because the essay for Mrs. Miniver was one of the better pieces that I lost when I misplaced a notebook that also had essays for The Grapes of Wrath and Fires Were Started and a bunch of notes on some fiction I was working on – and so apart from the frustration of having to re-write everything from scratch, I took too much time in getting around to it, and so now I’m writing this on the same day that I’m posting it, which means I’m writing it at quite a remove from having seen the actual movie, and, what’s worse, I’m showing up to the task after hammering for over an hour at another big writing project, a novel, something I’ve been trying to figure out, on-and-off, since 2015. It’s not going well. I’m nearing what feels like the third act but I feel like I’m hitting a brick wall, and every day I’m a little more convinced that the novel is stupid, doomed, and of course I start thinking, in turn, that I am stupid, I am doomed, and that the bevy of rejections I’ve gotten from agents over the past few years mean more than they actually do.
But look at yesterday’s essay, about Yankee Doodle Dandee: I didn’t like the movie, didn’t know what I could say about it, felt like I was pulling teeth by trying to string some thoughts together and act like I cared. Mrs. Miniver should be different, a total breeze to write about, because I thought it was delightful and probably the most stirring piece about the war to appear on the List to date – but it’s also frustrating to write about it now, in the wake of all that trouble with my own fiction, because the story here is so beautiful and graceful and believable and kinda focuses the viewer on a very real terror.
It’s terrific, and makes my own efforts at telling a story seem even more hopeless.
Anyway. Last year I read Gravity’s Rainbow for the first time and there’s a big portion of that book, in the beginning, that focuses on what it as like to live in England during Nazi air raids. Running for shelter when the sirens wailed, taking precautions that may just as well have been totally futile since if a bomb landed directly on your house it probably didn’t much matter if you were in the basement or not.
Mrs. Miniver brings Walter Pidgeon (the beloved & forsaking pastor of How Green Was My Valley) together with Greer Garson as the most courageous, charming, wholesome couple on the List to date, the Minivers, whose older son Vin (Richard Ney) is now of fighting age and will soon be heading off to war. Vin gets off on the wrong foot with another eighteen-year-old, Carol (Theresa Wright), but eventually they fall in love and get married and when he goes off to the war his wife takes to hanging out with the Minivers and worrying about him constantly.
Their collective worry for the fate of an absent son whom we, the audience, have come to know and care about is itself a pretty good narrative tactic in a movie that wants to show how the war isn’t something being fought entirely overseas, on battlefields, that the terror and loss is unfolding at home just the same.
More powerful than that, though, are the depictions of air raids. There’s a particularly unsettling scene where Mr. and Mrs. Miniver take their two young children into a heavily-secured bunker on their property to wait out an air raid. Mr. Miniver reads while Mrs. Miniver knits and the children try to sleep and the cat roams the set (am I remembering this correctly? I’m trying to refresh my memory and surprised that this scene isn’t readily available on YouTube or TCM). As the bombs drop, with the parents peeking out the door now and then, the walls take to rattling, and the power comes and goes, while the family in their claustrophobic little safe space tries to go about business as usual. Trading glances that reveal without a word just how much they’re straining toward this performance of normalcy.
It gets a little nuts as the story goes on but the characters are so wonderful and it develops so gracefully, with the story never really breaking into a sprint but also never slowing down, that we buy into the fact that, OK, here’s an armed and wounded German pilot who’s been shot down near their property, and he’s forcing Mrs. Miniver to take him home with her and feed him, a man she then has the opportunity to kill but doesn’t. Simply calls the police. And just as she has her moment of courage here so does Mr. Miniver have his moment when Churchill calls for Operation Dynamo, the extraction of some hundred thousand British soldiers from Dunkirk, and Mr. Miniver (at the behest of a charming miniature battleship from which a disembodied voice of authority booms) volunteers his private vessel for the effort, returning home the next day looking ragged and beat, having rescued a few young men.
It’s weird: the movie’s kinda silly but it’s also really moving, and we hand our hearts over to the silliness because…there’s something rewarding about giving a shit. About loving these wholesome characters and going along with them through something so trying. It’s propaganda, ultimately, cut more from the cloth of Sergeant York than it is from the more dour Mortal Storm or jolly Yankee Doodle Dandee. It’s exciting and empowering, but doesn’t pull punches with the ending. Shit gets bleak with the death of a main character that I honestly didn’t see coming. It ends on a bleaker note than seems consonant with everything the movie was going for up until then. And while the penultimate scene works beautifully as an emotional gut-punch, that scene of actual loss, it’s the famous ending (where emotionally- and spiritually-taxed Englanders convene for service in a shelled-out church and the pastor delivers a heartening sermon about perseverance) that doesn’t quite land for me. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the tonal shift? Like you’re not gonna persuade me that this war is worth fighting and that we’ll all come out in tact after I just saw that poor girl die.
And maybe that’s the movies intention. Like apart from showing us a believable and lovable family back home, and giving us an idea of how everybody’s nerves and faith and resolve are strained in this trying time, it’s also trying to have the form mimic the theme by challenging us, the audience, with something so jarringly horrific that afterward, when it tries to mollify that shock with a heartening little speech, we look around the theater at one another with this somber understanding that those are just words, removed from reality, and nobody’s gonna talk us through this. We just have to keep showing up.
Maybe almost like a commentary against Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister who – as people’ve been saying since last year’s odious Churchill biopic Darkest Hour – “mobilized the English language” toward reminding his people what they were fighting for. The virtue and valor of their efforts.
Of course it’s more likely the point that Mrs. Miniver was focused mainly on inspiring its audience and capping the show off with a somberly uplifting soliloquy. But, if that’s indeed the intention, I think it’s subverted. It’s a beautiful speech, but the words feel hollow and rote after what we’ve just experienced.