I miss Mrs. Miniver. She was much older than I. In truth, I didn’t come to know how much I missed her until many years after her passing. Mrs. Miniver was the movie, released in 1942, that won the Academy Award for Greer Garson, who played the title role. I was six years old when the movie was released. I was seventy one when Colleen and I watched it for the first time. Now that I have come to know Mrs. Miniver, I have become acutely aware of how much I miss her.
Mrs. Miniver was a simple, yet profound movie. The movie was profound, in the way it portrayed the quiet courage, resolve and character of the British people, and of the Miniver family, as they were drawn into the maelstrom of Britain’s desperate struggle to survive Hitler’s bombs during the crisis months of 1940. The movie was simple, in that it was done in black and white, relying on light and shadow and the skills of talented actors to play on our every emotion. The hell of war was shown us not by violent battle scenes, but by the emotions evident on the faces of the people who were living it. The physical realities of war, the bombs, blood and destruction, were largely unseen. Few special effects were available to a movie director in 1942, and few were required. We understood well what was happening. Graphic scenes would have been less painful than the look in the eyes of Mrs. Miniver as her life as she had known it was being destroyed.
I miss Mrs. Miniver, the movie, for what has been lost as movie making has substituted dramatic special effects for drama. We knew that Vincent Miniver, the twenty-year-old son who in a matter of weeks was transformed from idealistic Oxford student to embattled RAF fighter pilot, was facing death each time he took to the air to combat the overwhelming Luftwaffe. But we never once saw him in his Spitfire.
We knew the middle-aged, successful architect, Mr. Miniver, was courageous. We saw him leave his upscale English home in his small cabin cruiser, joining dozens, then hundreds, of his fellow citizens to help rescue the hundreds of thousand of soldiers facing annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk. For five days they made countless trips across the forty miles of open sea in the English Channel, under the guns of the German armies and aircraft, ferrying those soldiers home in boats intended for leisurely cruising about on inland waterways. But we only saw him leave, then return to his home and wife, bone-weary and his lovely boat smoked and damaged. We didn’t see the epic rescues, or need to. Our imagination painted the pictures for us in vivid detail. We knew what he must have braved, and endured.
We saw Mrs. Miniver stare out a window at outnumbered British fighter planes climbing to join the battle, knowing that some of those planes would not return and that one of those pilots was her son. We saw her, with her husband and two small children, cringing in a makeshift bomb shelter as her beautiful home was heavily damaged by enemy bombs. And we saw her cradle her daughter-in-law of two weeks in her arms, watching helplessly as life drained from her young body after being hit by the bullets of an enemy plane. The irony of her son surviving combat with those enemy planes, while his new bride lay dying from a stray bullet from one of them, was as stark as the black and white of the film. We saw Mrs. Miniver melt the iron heart of the aristocratic mother-in-law. We saw the smile in Mrs. Miniver’s eyes as a friend named his prize-winning rose for her.
That’s what we saw. What we did not see was gratuitous violence shown only because technology makes it possible. We knew Mr. and Mrs. Miniver loved each other. We saw that in the way they looked at each other, and in the quiet way they smiled and talked and strengthened each other. We did not see them in bed together, nor was there a reason to. We did not hear a profane word. We did not have to cringe at the “f-word.” We did not hear expletives fill the air as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver stumbled over the bombed shambles of their once-glorious home.
That’s why I miss Mrs. Miniver. I miss movies that end with me feeling uplifted, and not in the need of a shower. I miss adult conversation not laced with vulgarity. I miss movies where we can know that two people love each other by the look in their eyes, by the way they act, and by the way they talk to each other. I do not need to be a spectator to more than that. I miss movies that don’t insult me with banality, where everybody over age twenty behaved as an adult.
In 1942, when I was six years old, that movie depicted my world. It was a world where adults would have been mortified to be seen in public not appropriately dressed, where “please” and “thank you” were commonly heard, and swearing was not. It was a world where every failing of human nature was as present as it is today, but those failings were not paraded or celebrated in public. As I grew, the grown-ups in my world guided me, educated me, corrected me and set examples for me. Theirs was a world I wanted to join, but I had to first earn the right to do so. I wish that I could know Mrs. Miniver again.