Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An interesting choice for the Warners Controversial Classics line, The Americanization
of Emily takes on an issue considered by many to be off limits. Paddy Chayefsky's black
comedy rewrite of the novel by William Bradford Huie dares to
say that the reverence for War and its heroes is a societal sickness. Chayefsky later became
known for his bitter satires about dystopic situations, Hospital and Network. In
contrast to their bile and anger, his screenplay for Emily is one of his most charming
efforts. It has to be, for at its heart it has as subversive a message to sell as Charlie Chaplin's
Monsieur Verdoux. War may
be Hell, but to Chayefsky its glorification is a worse obscenity. All the medals, accolades,
tombs and revered remembrances of Wars are like overdone Christmas decorations. Chayefsky argues that
because wars all turn out to have been avoidable political spats, it's insanity to perpetuate the
institution by honoring its dead.
The Americanization of Emily is as clever as they come, but the logic of some of Chayefsky's
arguments is a little shaky. Some of it plays like double-talk, a series of thick arguments that
boil down to position speeches that differ from something like The Fountainhead only in
Chayefsky's writing skills - he's such a smoothie, he could sell tainted snow to proverbial
eskimos. A lot of his criticism pokes sick fun at War in general, not just its glorification, and
there's considerable tension over the fact that the film is set during D-Day - an unquestionably
justified military action. Garner dismisses the sacrifice of soldiers taking islands in the South
Pacific, using the argument that "somebody could get killed" to let others do the fighting. The main
characters undergo confusing third-act attitude shifts to the opposite of what they've been saying
for the last 100 minutes. Chayefsky was wise to leave his discussion in a foggy state, as even
peacetime audiences take deep offense at hearing that Uncle John or Cousin Jimmy died for nothing -
even the liberal
The Best Years of Our Lives
makes a villain out of a character who presents that argument.
Emily keeps the issues on a personal level. The real problem with the glorification of war
is that the relatives of brave men who fought honorably and did their duty, cannot bear criticism
of the conflicts they fought in. Any attempt to discuss "our" wars as less than noble crusades,
is interpreted as an attack on the dead heroes who fought in them.
The interesting thing about Emily is that it takes place during WW2, the exceptional
"good war" that was both just and unavoidable. The movie is far more controversial today than it
was in 1964. In Chayefsky's screenplay, James Garner's self-proclaimed professional coward
defends America against European criticism by saying that the USA never produced a war-mongering
despot like Hitler or Mussolini. We never had a leader that invaded other countries and
started wars as a part of national policy ...
Lt. Commander Charles Madison (James Garner) serves as a "Dog Robber" for Admiral
Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), procuring mountains of rationed consumer goodies to throw lavish
entertainments in the middle of strict war
rationing. He also procures party girls, much to the delight of his best buddy, Lt. Commander
Bus Cummings (James Coburn). At first shocked at the American arrogance and immorality, war
widow-turned chauffeur Emily Barham (Julie Andrews) responds to the rogue in Madison and becomes
his lover. Charlie has a peculiar philosophy, a personal plan to stay as far from combat as possible.
He disdains heroism and honor for he believes they
inspire generations of young men to waste their lives, as the whole war business is a corrupt lie
in the first place. Unfortunately, Admiral Jessup has a nervous breakdown and orders Charlie
to make a PR film about the first casualties on Normandy Beach. Our "yellow through and through"
Commander finds himself trapped into an almost certain suicide mission.
The Americanization of Emily is a highly entertaining movie, a good romance with excellent
work from attractive and vivacious stars Andrews, Garner and Coburn. The chatter is bright
and the humor is non-stop, so average viewers may be surprised when Chayefsky's dialogue starts
toppling sacred cows right and left.
The film was quite adult for its time, acknowledging that all kinds of chicanery and hankypanky
go on in the high ranks of the military. Garner's Dog Robber was once a hotel
manager specializing in the procurement of females, a skill he employs to better serve his
admiral. As Andrews' volunteer driver finds out, young motor pool girls are rewarded with
impossible-to-find clothing & perfumes and invited to parties where things Englanders haven't tasted
in years - like avocadoes - are to be found in abundance. Some sleep with the generals, and some
Emily invites us into the corruption by getting us to side with Garner's slick operator
Charlie - he's just taking care of business, after all. Then Charlie lays into the English, first
calling Emily a prig because she isn't casual about sex, and then lambasting her country's snooty
military tradition that sends sons off to die alongside their fathers. Of course Emily (and her
mother, played nicely by Joyce Grenfell) is a sitting duck for his arguments, as she's lost a father,
a brother and a husband to the war already. Garner's discourse against blind jingoistism makes some
sense, of course. But The Americanization of Emily is no fantasy like
Catch-22 that targets military
corruption through abstract exaggeration; Chayefsky argumes that all conflict is a sham. Not only are
there genuine monsters like Hitler to be resisted, millions of helpless combatants on all sides don't
have Charlie Madison's luxury of choice - they're in it whether they want to be or not.
Nor does it account for Charlie picking on the English, as there are plenty of American families
that follow similar military traditions. The English island is fighting for its very
survival, so the serious sacrifices of its men makes perfect sense. Chayefsky skates on thin ice here;
the scene where Charlie disabuses Emily's mother of her illusions is wickedly pointed, but it's also
cruel, and a cheap shot. He's perfectly happy to clobber the old lady with opinions he'd never offer
to his superior officers. He really is a coward.
Chayefsky keeps all of this going by centering on the plight of Madison and Emily, who eventually
face their future in a traditional way, by declaring that love will solve all their problems. As
this is a romance, it doesn't matter that they're of different nationalities or that Charlie is
"the most corrupt man she's ever known."
It's easy enough to just turn one's brain off and enjoy the great acting and funny lines - Chayefsky
invents several clever euphemisms to substitute for rough language and at one point even has Charlie
call Emily a bitch. She doesn't want to become Americanized, i.e., seduced by Yankee consumer riches
and arrogance. He gets to rub her indignation back in her face, by telling her as they break up
their relationship, "I want you to remember that when you last saw me, I was unregenerately eating
a Hershey bar!" Emily uses these arguments in sophisticated context - Charlie is being ironic
and just playing at arrogance - but the signals get mixed anyway.
Chayefsky is a brilliant writer and his stylized dialogues are great to listen to. Interestingly
enough, this movie, Hospital and Network all resort to the same plot trick - a major
character goes nuts and starts seeing visions that warp reality for the other characters.
The film is a career highpoint for most of its actors. Garner is all over Charlie Madison, the
apex of his winning, smart-ass Maverick persona. James
Coburn shapes up as star material with a snappy major supporting role, and Melvyn Douglas is
spot-on as the Admiral fighting not for victory but for the betterment of his branch of the service.
There's also good playing both farcical and straight from Edward Binns, William Windom, Liz Fraser
and Keenan Wynn, who does a great drunk act with Dobie Gillis alumnus Steve Franken. Alan
Sues and Judy Carne ( both of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In) are a camera specialist and
"Nameless Broad" respectively; the film may be progressive in some regards, but its females are
mostly bimboes. Sharon Tate is said to be visible somewhere. She was or was soon to be Martin
Ransohoff's production is splendid, with excellent B&W photography and clever short-cuts to make
us think we're seeing a lot more production value than we are. This and
Mary Poppins are Julie
Andrews' first films, and she's so good in a mature role that we immediately understand why she
felt stifled by her kiddie-nanny career. Emily admits to sleeping around and has no
shame ... it's a challenging role and she carries it off with dignity.
The only gripe about the physical production are the women's hairstyles: Andrews, Fraser and all
of Garner's good-time motor pool girls have poofy 1964 big-hair hairdos ... there's little or no
The Americanization of Emily certainly has a different take on D-Day than Saving Private
Ryan, even though they share the same attitude about survival on Normandy Beach. Its precocious
but suspicious thesis is brilliantly written, and the movie is highly enjoyable. You know Marty,
that Paddy Chayefsky can really write.
Warners' Controversial DVD of The Americanization of Emily looks great in enhanced
B&W widescreen. It's in perfect shape. The wider frame gives us a better look at all the
non-PC details and reveals studio sound stages standing in for a military base prepping for
A featurette called Action on the Beach is a tame look at the filming of the D-Day scene
out beyond Malibu. There's an original trailer as well.
Director Arthur Hiller provides an interesting commentary with plenty of personal reminiscences.
His take on the movie is that the script isn't anti-war, it's just against its glorification,
which is fair enough. He does let us know that the U.S. military did not approve of the script and
offered zero cooperation. It's interesting that the military will spend taxpayer money to promote
itself through movies it feels are good PR for the services, while denying aid to others. I suppose
it's no more twisted than spending defense money on recruiting propaganda - I've collected
pamphlets sent to my college-age sons which portray the Army as a beer party on the beach with
a lot of swimsuit models. That's just the attitude The Americanization of Emily deplores.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Americanization of Emily rates:
Supplements: Trailer, original featurette Action on the Beach, audio commentary
with director Arthur Hiller.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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