' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Though he may be a Lt. Commander in the US Navy in the throes of World War II, Charlie Madison (James Garner) is more like a party-planner, an event coordinator with a military insignia. His role is not on the front lines but behind the scenes, quickly and expertly tending to the convivial needs of various Generals. He has no idea about barrage balloons, but he for sure knows how every high-ranking official in the Navy likes his eggs. And while his ability to keep the men deciding the world’s fate properly vetted with wine and women is vital to the (cough, cough) war effort, Charlie is less like the John Wayne of the movies than the John Wayne of real life, which is to say he prefers to avoid anything actually having to do with combat at all costs. He’s a coward, you see, self-professed and proud of it. Gallant men don’t fight wars, he explains, and the Generals he labors over would seem to back up that claim. No, war is what makes men gallant.


Paddy Chayefsky, screenwriter extraordinaire, who served in WWII, based his script on a novel by William Bradford Huie, himself a WWII vet and a civilly conscious author. And while “The Americanization of Emily” was released into theaters not long after the Gulf of Tonkin incident and could very much be described as one of those films set in the past but about the present, it is still infinitely bold in tackling the so-called Last Great War with such irreverence. To be certain, it’s not brazenly arguing against America’s involvement, but it’s also leaning toward pacifism. Was pacifism mute in the face of Hitler and his Nazi thugs? Yes, it probably was, and Chayefsky just sort of skirts that topic. Yet, “The Americanization of Emily”, I might argue, is less about war itself than the military machine – in particular, the American military machine, and how even in spite of a virtuous cause, bureaucracy and public relations reign supreme. Our true American instincts – consumerism, sex and Hershey bars – cannot be stifled just because we’re The Good Guys.

Those instincts are precisely what bother Emily (Julie Andrews), a driver in the motor pool and a war widow, an Englishwoman who sees her American allies as pleasure-seeking scoundrels stocking entire rooms with bourbon for the officers and perfume for the ladies with whom the officers frequent while London and half of Europe have been reduced to rubble. Charlie, in fact, suggests she be one of the Generals’ escorts, and this ruffles her feathers. It’s a classic ploy, putting them at each other’s throats before having them wind up in each other’s arms, and might be why it’s the film’s weakest element, overtly contrasting her activism with his pacifism and rushing them into a relationship and then the brink of marriage to elevate those pesky “stakes” for later in the proceedings when Charlie is shipped off on a Normandy landing craft.

“The Americanization of Emily” is set on the eve of D-Day, its grand strategic particulars being discussed over a game of bridge, a subtly brilliant evocation of how even when the future of the world is at stake different branches of the military would just as well sit around and try to score points against one another. And to Charlie’s superior, Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) it quickly becomes clear – or perhaps we should say, - that the first man to perish on the beaches at Normandy should belong to the Navy. Why? Because the Army and the Marines don’t respect their compatriots in the white combination caps, and so Jessup devises a ploy whereby Charlie will be sent in with the first wave at Omaha Beach to make a movie of the first man to meet his Maker. Marketing doesn’t stop just because you’re liberating France, after all.


Naturally this runs counter to Charlie’s nonaggression. Remember the scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where the titular character played by Matt Damon gives the big speech about how we won’t leave his pseudo-brothers behind because it is his job to stay at Bastogne and defend the bridge? Yeah, imagine Charlie giving the exact opposite speech. It doesn’t matter. He’s going, his commanding officer citing “the essence of military structure and the inviolability of its command", and so the coward is roused to action. Eh, sort of. 

James Garner’s performance, routinely cited as one of his best, really is worthy of the acclaim, an astonishing and seemingly effortless achievement of duality. The actor’s caddish charm makes the character impossible to dislike despite all he does to avoid harm’s way, and when that cowardice inadvertently renders him the hero, it becomes the film’s ultimate joke, and one Garner is in on. “The Americanization of Emily” ultimate stance turns out to be not so much anti-war as a friendly, funny reminder that even the most altruistic of conflicts come equipped with self-interest.

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