Troops, tanks, bullets, bombs. They’re all essential wartime tools. But in 1942, world leaders acknowledged that a mere movie called Mrs. Miniver was the “secret weapon” that changed the hearts and minds of millions...which was exactly the point.
European-born director William Wyler admitted, “I was a war monger. I was concerned about Americans being isolationists. Mrs. Miniver was obviously a propaganda film.” British prime minister Winston Churchill called the movie “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions” in boosting U.S. support for his Blitz-weary nation. FDR ordered the film’s stirring final sermon to be broadcast over the Voice of America radio network, and leaflets printed with the speech air-dropped over Europe.
You know who else took notice? Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who grudgingly praised the drama’s remarkable impact: “[Mrs. Miniver] shows the destiny of a family during the current war, and its refined, powerful propagandistic tendency was 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.”
Amazing how the story of an English family, stiff-upper-lipping their way through air raids and Dunkirk, played such a prominent role in global affairs. Remember: When Wyler began shooting the film in November 1941, Pearl Harbor hadn't happened. Hollywood executives were reluctant to offend the lucrative German market with anti-Nazi movies. Influential public figures like Charles Lindbergh had promoted American neutrality at all costs.
Yet Wyler was determined to sound the alarm about the rising menace abroad – and he wasn’t alone. As Ben Urwand, author of The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler writes, “Screenwriters – many of whom were Jewish – would plead with the studio heads to make films about what Hitler was doing to Jews in Germany, but the studios were essentially controlled by six or seven individuals who decided what made it onto the screen, and the screenwriters had very little power.”
Fortunately, MGM produced Mrs. Miniver anyway. By the time it was released in June of 1942, America was at war, making fears of jeopardizing German movie profits a moot point. Greer Garson, who gained stardom in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Pride and Prejudice, was cast in the title role. For her performance as the ultimate “Keep Calm and Carry On” housewife who endures hardship – and smacks a downed Nazi pilot in her kitchen – Garson scored one of the film’s six Oscars. Her nearly six-minute acceptance speech remains the longest in Academy Awards’ history.
Mrs. Miniver went on to become the #1 box-office hit of the year, and the second-highest grossing picture of the decade. How fitting that Wyler, who captured the British homefront experience in Miniver and took home an Oscar as Best Director, won again in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives, the moving tale of American GIs adjusting to post-war life.
P.S. Off-screen, Greer Garson married her Miniver co-star Richard Ney. Happens all the time between actors, right? The difference was, Ney played Garson’s son in the picture, and he was 12 years her junior. Way to go, Cougar!