“I’ve got just the thing for you!” I said, “A real classic and it gives a wonderful picture of Britain. You’ll love it!”. As it happened, it was showing on TV.
The film was Mrs Miniver, the multi-Oscar-winning 1942 gem starring Greer Garson as the plucky British housewife at the start of the Second World War, comforting her children in the air raid shelter, welcoming her husband back from taking his boat to Dunkirk, single-handedly disarming a downed German airman, while life in her idyllic village goes on, interspersed with stoically-borne tragedy. In the iconic final scene, the congregation gathers in the bombed village church, the vicar delivering a Churchillian oration and through a hole in the shattered roof, a shot of the RAF flying overhead in V formation to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory. Stirring stuff.
In 2009, it made the American National Film Registry, for films worthy of preserving for posterity. It “pictorializes” (sic), they said, “ the classic British stiff upper lip.”
It’s well known that Mrs Miniver was intended as propaganda, albeit charming propaganda, to get Americans to support the war effort. After the credits appeared the words, “America needs your money. Buy defense bonds and stamps.”
Never mind. It was a massive hit in America – and in Britain too. When I first saw it I loved it and cried my eyes out at the end.
So hubby and I watched. And after a bit we looked at each other, “Hang on a minute!”
Living in two countries does that to you. I was suddenly seeing dear, familiar Mrs Miniver with new eyes.
What I hadn’t grasped before was that the perfect British wife had an American husband (or a Canadian, turned American husband) in the shape of Walter Pidgeon and an American son and a daughter-in-law, played by Teresa Wright, supposedly from an ancient English aristocratic family, who, in her touching death scene, asked for a glass of, not water, but “wahdurr”.
There it all was, the white picket fence, the giant fridge, the bedside telephone, the grotesquely large sports car, the choir singing Onward Christian Soldiers with an unmistakable Yankee twang. I’m no expert but I’ll bet you the birds twittering in the English garden were American too. All patched together with a few Cockney accents of varying degrees of phoniness.
Not to mention that this wartime “average middle-class British family” had several servants, wardrobes full of fancy hats and fox-fur stoles and an apparentlylimitless supply of eggs.
And they banged on in a very un-British way about the “feudal” system dying out. (Posh girl marrying middle-class boy and lowly station master allowed by Lady of the Manor to win at flower show.)
Hollywood wasn’t showing Americans the real Britain. How could it? Like many other films of its time about “Britain”, it was filmed in a studio in California. But it showed something Americans could identify with and so reach deep into their pockets for – and perhaps it also gave British people an image of themselves that they secretly wanted to see.
“So what?” you might say. It was enjoyable, helped win the War and was made decades ago. Things are different now.
Only I don’t think they are. Mrs Miniver , however benign, is a lesson in the manipulative power – and inherent untrustworthiness - of the silver screen. We can all name films that blatantly distort historical facts – and America certainly doesn’t have a monopoly of those. But I’m talking about seemingly innocent examples – like 101 Dalmatians, supposedly set in Britain, which features American raccoons scampering all over the place. Even the British-made Downton Abbey, hugely popular over here, appears to have sprouted an unlikely number of American characters, though at least they’re not pretending to be British.
We should be worried. But no matter how much I tell myself to keep a critical mind, I have to confess that Mrs M second time around still made me cry.