The sentimental stories of the Miniver family had first appeared in serial form in The London Times, and were later published in book form in the United States, where they had considerable popular and commercial success. At a time when America was still neutral and when the film industry's pro-British bias was under investigation by a congressional committee, producer Sidney Franklin had the courage to persuade M-G-M to purchase the screen rights to Mrs. Miniver and to assign the scripting to the staunchly pro-British writing team of Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Claudine West, who, individually and collectively, were responsible for a number of films depicting Hollywood's view of British heroism and stoicism, including Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Random Harvest (1942), That Forsyte Woman (1949), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), Forever and a Day (1943), and Waterloo Bridge (1940). Mrs. Miniver was written as a starring vehicle for Greer Garson as a follow-up to her success in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and to continue her teaming with Walter Pidgeon, which had begun with Blossoms in the Dust (1941). Although Mrs. Miniver went into production prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States was firmly involved in the world conflict by the time of its release, and the film's success was assured.
Despite its tremendous success both in the United States and in England, Mrs. Miniver presents an idealized view of English life. Its central characters represent upper-middle-class English people, who suffered little hardship and privation during World War II as compared to other classes of society living in British cities. German bombers nightly made devastating raids on cities such as London, Hull, Coventry, Bristol, and Birmingham, causing tremendous damage and loss of life. These industrial cities were their targets; the Germans would never have wasted bombs on a small village such as that inhabited by the Miniver clan. The suggestion that the Minivers spend their nights in a cramped Anderson air-raid shelter, or the fact that the village church, which in Mrs. Miniver looks more like a cathedral, is deliberately destroyed by bombs, is simply unrealistic. It is obvious almost forty years later that the Hollywood producers and scriptwriters realized that to win sympathy for their cause they would have to depict a war which hurt the upper-class family and destroyed beautiful buildings, rather than a war which ravaged working-class slums and destroyed homes which should have been condemned as unsanitary years before.
The film opens with Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) guiltily buying a foolish little hat while on a shopping spree in London, while her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is equally guilty, buying a new car. Both realize that their expenditures are a little extravagant, but both eventually agree that they are two lucky people to have so much. On the way home, the kindly old station master tells Mrs. Miniver that he has grown a particularly beautiful rose, and he asks if he may name it the "Mrs. Miniver Rose" in her honor.
The Minivers live in a house with the lyrical name of Starlings, and here the family—husband and wife, son and daughter—gather to welcome the eldest son, returning home from Oxford. In an England at peace, the biggest commotion concerns the village's annual flower show, where the "Mrs. Miniver Rose" has been entered in competition against a rose entered by Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), the lady of the manor. Lady Beldon's family has, apparently, been growing flowers since the days of William the Conqueror, and no one has dared to question their supremacy until now To add to the controversy, Lady Beldon's granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright) is in love with the Miniver's eldest son, and she worries that Lady Beldon will disapprove of the match because of the success of the "Mrs. Miniver Rose." A considerable amount .of time is spent on the flower show and its implications, for, as one critic at the time pointed out, it is as if the film's producers are saying, "If battles aren't for gardens and roses and neighbors, old and young, gathering at a country fair, what are they for?"
Next morning, the Minivers attend church, and the vicar (Henry Wilcoxon), the local representative of the Church of England, which, in turn, represents England's strength and heritage, announces that the country is at war.
The war changes life, but at the same time life remains unchanged. The eldest son joins the R.A.F., but is stationed at a local airfield. Mrs. Miniver is still a pillar of society, a representative of English motherhood at its best. She seems to embody the idea that the English are indomitable be it in capturing a German airman who tries to hide in her house or in comforting her children as they take cover in the air-raid shelter. Then, she and Lady Beldon's granddaughter are caught in an air raid while driving home from the first flower show of the war—the flower show at which Lady Beldon has recognized the superiority of the "Mrs. Miniver Rose," just as she has allowed her granddaughter to marry the Minivers' eldest son; the car is hit by machine-gun fire and her daughter-in-law is killed.
Mr. Miniver also proves his determination in the face of enemy action, as he and the other men of the village fetch their boats and sail to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded British soldiers. Whatever they do in Mrs. Miniver, this average, ordinary English family seems rather extraordinary.
At first it appears as if the film will end on a tragic note. Mrs. Miniver's daughter-in-law is dead, the village is in ruins and the church roof shattered. But the vicar, like Mrs. Miniver a symbol of enduring strength, courage, and faith, gathers his congregation together. In a speech intended as much for the American moviegoer as for the villagers, the vicar says, "This is the people's war! It is our war! We are the fighters! Fight it, then! Fight it with all that is in us! And may God defend the right." As the Miniver clan stands, a formation of R.A.F. planes is seen in the sky through the bombed roof of the church, and the choir breaks into "Onward Christian Soldiers." The ending is either inspiring or pure kitsch, depending on one's viewpoint.
As an interesting aside, director William Wyler and actor Henry Wilcoxon apparently found the vicar's speech as written too palid and rewrote much of it. President Roosevelt was so impressed that he had the speech printed on leaflets to be dropped over German-occupied Europe.
Mrs. Miniver is what is best described as a polished production, impeccably made and impeccably acted, but lacking any warmth or genuine emotion. The camerawork, for example, is good, but so uninspired that it is amazing that Joseph Ruttenberg should have received an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on the film.
However, Mrs. Miniver was highly honored on its initial release. It received six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Direction. It broke box-office records during its ten-week run at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Radio City Music Hall was also the site for the New York premiere of a 1950 sequel, The Miniver Story, filmed in England, which reunited Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Reginald .Owen, and Henry Wilcoxon from the original cast in the adventures of Mrs. Miniver following VE Day. That film ended with the death of Mrs. Miniver.