Winter 2005 -- If you’ve never seen Mrs. Miniver—the award-winning 1942 film about a middle-class British family courageously facing their nation’s entry into World War II—now might be a good time. Then note that this Hollywood production was hugely influential in rousing the sympathy of ordinary Americans for Britain’s struggle against the Nazi onslaught. Next, ask yourself: Where is today’s Mrs. Miniver—a film to arouse public support for the present struggle against Islamist terrorism?
Winston Churchill called Mrs. Miniver “propaganda worth a hundred battleships.”
Winston Churchill called Mrs. Miniver “propaganda worth a hundred battleships.” The biggest box-office draw in a decade (second only to Gone with the Wind), it reached a vast audience, both in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, the patriotic speech made near the end of the film by the vicar of Mrs. Miniver’s village was widely translated, dropped by air over German-occupied territory, ordered to be broadcast over the Voice of America by President Roosevelt, and reprinted in mass media such as Time and Look magazines.
Mrs. Miniver was not an independent effort by unknowns. It engaged some of the biggest film talents of the day. Directed by one of Hollywood’s all-time greats, William Wyler, it starred Greer Garson—the Meryl Streep of her day—as Mrs. Miniver. Both of them won Academy Awards, as did the screenwriters. It also won the Oscar for best picture.
Wyler, a Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1920 (he had been born in the German territory of Alsace in 1902), made Mrs. Miniver expressly to arouse support for America’s entry into the war. Filming began four weeks before Pearl Harbor, when isolationism was still rampant here; upon completion, Wyler would enlist in the U. S. Army. He had a strong hand in drafting the vicar’s crucial speech. Delivered toward the end of the film, after the vicar’s parish had suffered a devastating bomb attack, it is worth quoting at length:
We, in this quiet corner of England, have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us. . . .
The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There is scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart.
And why? Surely you must have asked yourself 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. This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform, it is a 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 threatens to strike us down! Fight it, then! Fight it with all that is in us! And may God defend the right.
In his recent book The West’s Last Chance, Tony Blankley—himself the son of Britons who survived the German blitz—echoes the warning sounded by experts on the Middle East such as Bernard Lewis and Bat Ye’or. During our lifetime, they say, Europe risks being overwhelmed by militant Islam, which would pose a greater threat to us than Hitler’s Germany ever did. “In this regard there is a close analogy to World War II,” Blankley insists, “and we would be well advised to remember that history.”
Regrettably, however, in seeking parallels between past and present, few in Hollywood can think farther back than Vietnam. And as the Cindy Sheehans of America grab the headlines, public support for today’s war is waning.
Few things have the potential to sway public opinion as powerfully as a well-made film. To make a compelling Mrs. Miniver for today’s world, however, would require talented people with an abiding belief in the basic value of America: individuals more concerned about preserving that value than in revealing whatever shortcomings they see or impute. Almost no one in Hollywood today qualifies. Can anyone imagine Robert Redford taking on such a project, for example, or Meryl Streep, or Susan Sarandon?
Far worse, of course, is that Hollywood actively contributes to the negative image much of the world now forms of us.
Hollywood panders to its foreign audience, presenting America in the worst light.
As critic Michael Medved observed in a talk entitled “War Films, Hollywood, and Popular Culture” at Hillsdale College last spring, the principal source of revenue for the major studios has shifted, from seventy percent domestic in 1970 to more than seventy percent foreign. Once the exporter of films that offered the world a mainly positive view of the U.S., Hollywood now panders to its foreign audience, typically presenting America and things American (in particular, the military) in the worst possible light.
One recent abomination is Flight Plan, starring Jodie Foster, in which the bad guys turn out to be the American flight attendant and Federal Air Marshal, and the good guys are four Muslim Arabs who look very much like terrorists—no doubt the filmmakers’ simplistic jab at racial profiling. Then there is Stephen Spielberg’s Munich, from which many moviegoers have inferred a sense of moral equivalence between the terrorist slaughtering of Israeli Olympic athletes, and Israel’s retributive assassination of the terrorists.
If such films contribute to distorting and tainting public perceptions at home, as Medved argues, think how much greater the damage must be abroad.
Consider all that the next time you tune into Hollywood’s self-celebration-plus-radical- leftist grandstanding known as the Academy Awards.
Then flick off the TV and pop in a tape or DVD of Mrs. Miniver to remind yourself that things weren’t always this way—that there was a time when people in Tinseltown could figure out who the real enemy was.