FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Americanization of Emily
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Martin Ransohoff; directed by Arthur Hiller; screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky; based on a novel by William Bradford Huie; cinematography by Phillip H. Lathrop; editing by Tom McAdoo; music by Johnny Mandel; costume design by Bill Thomas; starring James Garner, Julie Andrews, James Coburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Joyce Grenfell. Blu-ray, B&W, 115 min, 1964. A Warner Archive Collection release.
In the Fifties, Paddy Chayefsky wrote a film adaptation of his television play Marty,(1955), a low-budget, black-and-white work that poignantly captured the mundane daily life and timid love affair of a lonely East Bronx butcher. Its rare-for-Hollywood realism (in Chayefsky’s words, “the magical world of the ordinary”) won Marty four Academy Awards. Chayefsky also wrote screen treatments for several of his other plays, including The Catered Affair (1956) and Middle of the Night (1959). Both were sharply observed slice-of-life films about families and relationships.
By the Sixties, Chayefsky had moved on from realism to making a political satire and black comedy—The Americanization of Emily, based on a novel by William Bradford Huie—set in London in the weeks leading up to D-Day during WWII, the “good war.” It was made during a wave of antinuclear and antimilitarist sentiment that also brought to the screen the same year films such Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and Seven Days in May. The film takes place behind the lines where aides to generals and admirals are safely removed from the mayhem of war. Lt. Commander Charles Madison (James Garner as the smooth-talking, quick-witted operator he had made into his trademark on television’s Maverick) serves as a “Dog Robber” for an aging Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas). Charlie, an aide who plays the angles, secures a vast array of consumer goods outside the rationing system in order to wine and dine the officers. In civilian life, Charlie was a hotel manager in Washington, D.C., who specialized in procuring women for diplomat guests. He serves the same sleazy function for the officers.
There is nothing admirable about Charlie’s behavior, although Garner’s charm and good looks help audiences excuse the nature of his activities.Still, his arrogance and sexist penchant for patronizingly patting the behinds of servicewomen serving in the motor pool at first repels the more idealistic and softhearted Brit war widow turned military chauffeur Emily Barham (Julie Andrews). The seemingly prim and morally judgmental Emily nevertheless turns out to be someone who falls in love easily and has powerful sexual needs, so her reservations about Charlie quickly melt away. Attracted to Madison’s nature as a coward and glib scoundrel, she becomes his lover. Since language rather than feeling is central to the film, their relationship never goes much deeper emotionally than exchanges about British and American cultural dissimilarities and affirmations of love (Emily loves Charlie’s “greedy appreciation of life.”) Whatever differences they have are easily transcended.
Though their affair plays a central role in the film, The Americanization of Emily won’t be remembered for their romance, but for Chayefsky’s jeremiad against war as a social pathology and corrupt mythology. Charlie defines himself as “yellow,” a professional coward, who wants to survive by staying as far from combat as he can. He is an eloquent and convincing spokesman for Chayefsky’s point of view—that humanity is served better by cowardice rather than courage—and the role fits the slick, verbally adept Garner persona perfectly. The film gives him a great many opportunities to inveigh seamlessly, though never tediously or too solemnly, against the madness of war and its exultation (undermining the notion that “to die a hero is a glorious thing”),trenchantly pointing out that “it may be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.” It's mademore controversial by the factthat WWII has always been seen as necessary and just, and D-Day—the invasion of Europe—viewed as a totally justified military action.
For Chayefsky, war and its sacred idols—medals, tombs, romanticized memories—exist to be satirized and condemned. Admiral Jessup, whom Charlie loyally serves and has genuine affection for, is more interested in the prestige of the Navy than in the number of men he loses on D-Day. In fact, all the generals and admirals in the film are caught up in interservice rivalry—a veritable football game to them—as much as a war where many lives are lost.
Consequently, Jessup orders that a sailor must be “the first dead man on Omaha Beach.” Somehow a number of narrative and farcical twists (including the fact that Jessup suffers a breakdown) ultimately lead a frightened and drunk Charlie to unwillingly board a cross-Channel landing craft with a movie camera in hand to film the invasion. Charlie, who has artfully avoided combat, is unwittingly turned into a hero serving the Navy’s PR machine, his picture adorning hundreds of American newspapers and magazines, because he is supposedly the first man to die on Omaha Beach. Of course, this is a romantic comedy and Charlie doesn’t die. The film also reveals him willing to compromise the truth that he has asserted so expressively throughout the film. So, instead of revealing that he is a fraud, he maintains the illusion that he is a hero, leaving intact both his military promotion and funding, and a presumably long and happy future life with Emily.
Americanization contains strong supporting performances from James Coburn as Charlie’s best friend, Lt. Commander “Bus” Cummings, a bed-hopping, somewhat manic Annapolis grad, who turns into an absurd, gung-ho war lover. As Emily’s mother, Joyce Grenfell successfully conveys a mixture of sophistication, wit, and anguish.
Arthur Hiller’s direction, alas, is merely functional and often static, the fate of most directors who worked with Chayefsky, with the visuals usually being subordinated to the writer’s thunderously fluent speechifying and brilliant wit. (That was true even when a master director like Sidney Lumet collaborated with Chayefsky on Network.)
At the same time, what is most striking about Americanization are Chayefsky’s words. The film is not anti-American, and Charlie defends America against European criticism by asserting that we never produced a Mussolini or Hitler. He goes on a rant stating, “This war, is the result of two thousand years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity.”
The main line of the film’s attack, however, is not on the politics of any one country’s foreign policy, but on war itself and its horrific consequences. For Chayefsky, war is a sickness and, even when it’s fought for the best reasons, “butchery” is the result. So, even if the film ultimately softens its message by bowing to the imperatives of romantic-comedy conventions, we can’t help remembering Chayefsky’s powerful words subverting the abstractions of patriots: “God save us all from people who do the morally right thing. It's always the rest of us who get broken in half.”
This Blu-ray offers extras, which is a rarity in films from the Warner Archive, in particular director Arthur Hiller's commentary from a 2005 DVD. In a discussion of the film that is more anecdotal than analytic, Hiller does provide one interesting fact—that the U.S. military disapproved the script and offered zero cooperation in the making of the film.
Leonard Quart is co-author of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger), now in its fourth edition.
To purchase The Americanization of Emily, click here.
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Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4