In a comfortable house in the British Isles lives Kay Miniver (Greer Garson), her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon), and her three children Toby, Judy, and Vin (Richard Ney). Kay and Clem are well off, Clem has a successful career as an architect, and are enjoying having a little extra money to splash out on some luxuries as well as being able to continue employing some in house staff. Kay has just bought a new hat and Clem has purchased a new car. It is the summer of 1939 and life is good.
A few days later Vin arrives home from Oxford and the entire family turns out to meet him at the train. Vin is a bit puffed up on account of his newly acquired college education and soon puts this new attitude to use by insulting the granddaughter, Carol (Teresa Wright), of local aristocrat Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). Despite this rocky start, Vin and Carol soon come to terms and fall in love. They agree to keep in touch while Carol and her grandmother are away for the summer in Scotland.
Weeks pass and local gossip turns to Poland and the recent fall of that country to German hands. On a quiet Sunday morning the village turns out for church and Vin is delighted to see Carol and her grandmother among the congregation, the pair having returned early from their travels. The service begins but is quickly interrupted by the Vicar announcing that England has declared war on Germany. Many of the older members of the congregation are visibly upset, even to tears, by this news as memories of another World War not long past are still present and troubling.
Life changes now for the Miniver family and their town. Vin goes into the service and joins the RAF, Clem does his part as a Local Defense Volunteer and is part of the Thames River Squad. Even some members of the household staff join the military and the WAAF in order to “do their bit”. Vin begins his training at a base nearby and life continues on, changed but not deeply altered by the war. Some weeks later the locals are listening to Lord Haw Haw on the radio and dismissing his dark predictions for England’s inevitable fall to Germany when word comes in that a German pilot has been downed nearby. Clem and other members of the Thames River Squad are out searching for him but have not yet found him.
That evening Vin returns home for a dinner with the whole family, including Carol, and it ends up being a momentous occasion as he proposes to his love and she accepts. Celebrations are cut short as Vin is recalled to his base for immediate deployment and Clem is called out to the river. Clem and his fellow local boat owners are then informed that they are to take part in the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkerque, France. Five days later, Kay has no word from Vin or Clem and her only clues as to their locations come from the newspaper. Taking a stroll in her garden she happens upon something strange…German boots.
MRS. MINIVER is first and foremost a story of people. Based on a book which was itself based on the column of the same name written by Jan Struther, the pen name of Joyce Anstruther, Mrs. Miniver first appeared in The Times in 1937. She was created when Peter Fleming, brother of Ian, asked Jan Struther to write about “an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life — rather like yourself”. The pieces would appear every few weeks and became an instant hit. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the columns were combined into a book which was published under the title “Mrs. Miniver” and quickly became a bestseller. Mrs. Miniver, called Carol in the books, was a women who enjoyed her children, loved her husband, ran her household, and observed the changes in the world. In short she was a reflection of the men and women who read about her, a window into their hearts as well as the happier times of their past before the war. She also was a beacon, a guiding light, a comforting friend in the uncertain and turbulent times when the entire world was fighting each other too few years after the Great War.
Rather than a traditional novel, Mrs. Miniver the book is a collection of vignettes in the life of a British family. This was undoubtedly an issue when constructing the screenplay for MRS. MINIVER. While the columns themselves had no connections other than the Miniver family, the film needed to have a cohesive storyline. As a result much of what takes place in the film is not present in the book. And while the book of Mrs. Miniver was intended to at first entertain and later boost the morale of the British public, the film had a much larger and far reaching purpose in mind.
The film began pre-production in the fall of 1940, when the United States was still out of the war. As time went on and the country moved closer and closer to war, certain scenes were altered and re-written to more accurately reflect the growing anti-Germany and pro-Britain attitude of the public. The scenes involving the downed German flyer were changed several times becoming progressively harsher and more confrontational. The film was finally released in 1942, just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt ordered it rushed to the theaters for propaganda purposes because at its core that was what MRS. MINIVER was intended to be.
Director William Wyler was born in Germany and firmly believed that the United States should join the fight against Nazism. He feared that the country’s isolationist attitude would be damaging and so endeavored to make a film showing the American public what their British counterparts were going through at that time. His plans worked and the film did a great deal toward raising American sympathy toward Britain. Winston Churchill once famously said that MRS. MINIVER, first the book and then the film, had done more for the war than “six divisions of war effort.”
The final speech by the vicar in MRS. MINIVER was printed in the magazines TIME and LOOK, as well as being broadcast on Voice of America and dropped as propaganda pamphlets all over Europe at the behest of President Roosevelt. Called “The Wilcoxon Speech” in honor of the actor Henry Wilcoxon and his stirring delivery, this speech perhaps best exemplifies what made MRS. MINIVER the film and Mrs. Miniver the book such enduring stories and inspiring human tales.
“…The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? 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?
I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.”