Hollywood Flashback: In 1943, 'Mrs. Miniver' Mined Dunkirk for Six Oscars

MGM/Photofest
'Mrs. Miniver’s' Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon with young Christopher Severn and Clare Sandars.

Director William Wyler's film, which took home the Academy Award for best picture, focused on a British family trying to survive the war. Christopher Nolan's take on the World War II battle hits theaters July 21.

Warner Bros. can only hope that Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which opens July 21, does as well as the first Hollywood movie to touch on that eight-day World War II battle/evacuation: Mrs. Miniver won six Oscars, including best picture.

While 1942's $1.34 million ($20 million today) MGM production focused on an upper-middle-class British family trying to survive the war, one key plot element is the father sailing with the 800 boats that in 1940 rescued about 340,000 British and French troops surrounded by the German army in the French port of Dunkirk.

The film is unabashedly pro-British. "I was concerned about Americans being isolationists," said director William Wyler, who died in 1981. He said his attitude on making movies during the war was: "Let's make propaganda pictures but make them good." (He also made them profitable: Miniver earned seven times its production cost just domestically.)

No less an authority on propaganda than the Nazis' Joseph Goebbels was envious: He wrote that Miniver's "refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of."

When the Oscars were held in 1943 at the Cocoanut Grove, THR said a high point came with a message from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "We have succeeded in turning the tremendous power of the motion pictures into an effective war instrument," he wrote, "without the slightest resort to the totalitarian methods of our enemies."

This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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