"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mrs. Miniver

The Oscar for Best Picture in 1942 went to a film that in the end comes down to war propaganda, complete with a plug for U.S. War Bonds. As troubling as film as propaganda is, the last scene in the film raises even more fundamental problems that the film glosses over. Tellingly, the scene takes place in a bombed church in the fictional English village.

As the congregation is mourning its dead with the war far from over, the Christian minister preaches righteous war, followed by refrains of Onward Christian Soldier. The problem of the religion of love extended even to one’s enemy, including turning the other cheek, turned to the service of war is ignored, as is the consequent problem of a religion that can be so contorted beyond recognition and yet still standing. In other words, the hypocrisy of Christians being urged to fight rather than love their enemies is missed, as is the problem of how a religion can stand even when it is turned against its own principles. Additionally, the premise of being able to know God’s mind, as in the preacher’s announcement that God is on their side of the war, is also far from transparent as a problem.

In his writings, Nietzsche advocates treating truth as a problem, rather than as an inviolable, or sacred given. The truth of God being on our side in a war seems to be as a good candidate. For in a religion in which God is love itself, the very notion of God on any side of a war can only be an oxymoron. Papering over it is the business of presumption, or hubris, rather than anything holy.

To be sure, Mrs. Miniver has its bright spots. Most notably, it depicts an idyllic family that is seldom caught in modern cinema. Also, the film is laudable in that it shows a greater good to which individuals are willing to sacrifice. As the minister observes in that last scene, it is a people’s war; everyone is in it. The common cause and related sacrifice all around do not, however, justify projecting the cause onto God itself, especially if the substance of the deity is love. 

Rather than encouraging the “Christian solders” on, the minister could have taken his congregation from its somber mood to transcend the banality of the war into a sort of religious experience wherein God’s love as love is felt among them. A hint of the possibility can be found in Vin, the eldest son and an air-force flyer, walking over to his wife’s grandmother to comfort her. Like the whispering wind passing by Elijah on the mountain, God is in Vin’s quiet move over to the crying woman as they are singing a hymn, rather than with the “Christian soldiers” as they fight on to fight the good fight. Film as propaganda is inherently problematic because it misses so much.