Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mrs. Miniver and Propaganda

Reviews of “Mrs. Miniver” almost always mention the word “propaganda” in the first line. I find this odd, since just about every film made during World War II that mentioned the war was propaganda of a sort. This includes films made not only by the United States, but by every nation with a film industry at the time.

Made after World War II began in Europe, but before the United States became involved, “Mrs. Miniver” was supportive of the Brits against the Nazis and included the stock characters of plucky but somewhat buffoonish under classes supporting the noble, good looking and well-lit upper classes, nothing unusual in films of the time. What was dangerous for the industry was the taking of sides.

Director William Wyler frankly stated his support for US involvement in the war and that making this film was his contribution to that effort. By the time the film was released, the United States was at war, with no further need for the industry, politicians or public to be squeamishly neutral. Perhaps what sealed “Mrs. Miniver” as propaganda for all time was the famous “Wilcoxon speech” penned reportedly by Wyler and Henry Wilcoxon, who played the vicar, who delivers the speech at the end of the film. The speech was championed by President Franklin Roosevelt, broadcast on radio, printed in magazines, used to define our mission. Winston Churchill lauded the film. Had the politicians not taken the film to their hearts, perhaps “Mrs. Miniver” would have come down to us only as a sentimental movie of the British home front, and not branded with that loaded title of “propaganda.”

If most English housewives did not apprehend Nazi soldiers in their kitchens like Mrs. Miniver did, there were still many homes on the European continent where such soldiers were equally unwelcome, but not so easily subdued. We sometimes forget today, and perhaps younger film buffs never realize, that the angst depicted in those films was real. Fear breeds chauvinism, which breeds propaganda. Any mention of war is apt to be viewed as political. Even documentaries can be slanted. But, these films were never intended to be documentaries, only stories reflective of their times.

These days the US has been at war for four years, and there are very few films out which address this situation, even in passing. The danger again, just as it was before we entered World War II, is appearing to take a political stance. By even mentioning it, we are seeming to take a viewpoint, which carries risk. It is easier to say nothing. One wonders what film buffs sixty years from now will learn about our era in a time when war fills the nightly news, but not the movie theaters.

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