While troops on the front lines wait for D-Day, the high command of the American Navy is serviced by the wait staff in fancy London hotels. Lieutenant Commander Charlie Madison (James Garner) is a "dog robber", a man who specializes in providing all the luxuries of home: food, clothes, booze, women -- and he's very good at what he does. Visitors excitedly agree his hotel room is more like a store, packed from floor to ceiling with boxes of swanky, high-demand goods. Although wheeling and dealing comes naturally to Madison, his post is also a choice. He's a self-confessed coward, having seen the front lines and decided it wasn't for him. It's a stance that initially offends Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), but ultimately endears him to her. She's lost a husband, a brother, and multiple cousins to the war, and although she dislikes his American attitudes, she finds herself attracted to a man who isn't likely to get shot.
Watching The Americanization of Emily, it's almost hard to believe the movie was ever made. It's an anti-war satire that frequently takes big, bold jabs at the respectability of the military. The screenplay was adapted by legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, based on a novel by William Bradford Hue. It's a comedy in the sense that what happens in it has a screwball lunacy to it, but most of the film's most memorable scenes are cutting or devastating, rather than traditionally funny. In the wrong hands, the movie could be dreadfully preachy, but Chayefsky wisely funnels everything through his characters, allowing the screenplay to make its points without giving off the feeling of soapboxing.
The film is centered around Charlie, Emily, and Charlie's close friend, Lieutenant Commander Paul "Bus" Cummings (James Coburn). Charlie fears the stakes of war, Emily has been wounded by it, and Paul believes in it. Chayefsky walks a fine line, managing to deliver all three views fairly, then stirring the pot. Although the overall message is anti-war, there's some wiggle room in the nobility of the soldiers who participate in it, delivered by Charlie of all people, who says -- shortly before preaching the merits of cowardice -- that war is "man at his best; the highest morality we're capable of." War may be unnecessary and inhumane, the film argues, but openly allows that few on the front lines go into it for the wrong reasons. It'd be easy to miss the subtle difference between decrying the nerve it takes to go to war with the desire to celebrate that nerve, but Chayefsky makes the distinction.
It's only fitting, then, that Charlie ends up unable to slip out of a plan by the mentally unstable Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) to film the first dead Navy soldier at Omaha beach as a symbol of nobility to motivate the troops. His terror coincides with a fight of militaristic righteousness on behalf of Bus, who was given a desk job thanks to poor eyesight and puffs up at his chance to get in on the action. The following scenes featuring Garner and Coburn are a wonderful counterpoint to scenes in the first half of the film in which Garner lays out his history. Despite the confidence he displays when dealing with things he can handle, like Hershey Bars and Bonwit-Teller, Garner's complete emotional breakdown at the idea of having to risk his life for the kind of celebration he despises would be funny if it weren't so embarrassing. Coburn's performance in the scenes after Charlie scrapes rock bottom are among the film's most traditionally funny moments.
At its heart, Emily is also a romance. When Charlie is first introduced, he's a cad, casually slapping the asses of every beautiful motor pool driver, including Emily, who promptly slaps him in the face. Their relationship proceeds with a similar frankness, both parties openly confessing their wounds and wishes. Although Chayefsky's erudite dialogue occasionally gets in the way of the characters' emotional state, the actors themselves exhibit strong chemistry that helps smooth over the rocky patches. Although the film sometimes struggles to balance the war material with the romance, Chayefsky deftly ties Charlie and Emily's relationship in by the film's final scene, in which each of the film's central characters finds themselves in a distinctly different, even opposing position from the one they started in -- a perfect summation of the film's sly wit.
Warner Archive re-formats the DVD artwork for this new Blu-Ray, correcting the mistake on the DVD art (naming film historian Drew Casper as the commentator rather than director Arthur Hiller). It's still slightly strange: the hand "unzipping" the image to reveal James Coburn surrounded by women is not inaccurate, but is somewhat misleading. The art is laser printed on thick paper and has the same minor quibble as the rest of Warner Archive's Blu-Ray artworks, in that the "spine" area is a bit too thin. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The Americanization of Emily is granted a handsome 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (mistakenly identified on the case as a lossy 2.0 Stereo track). Aside from the credits, one brief piece of stock footage, and a slightly soft shot here and there, the level of fine detail is in keeping with the best black-and-white transfers I've seen on Blu-Ray, offering great depth and showcasing Philip Lathrop's impressive cinematography (many scenes take place in the dark, with evocative mood lighting, including one of the film's most famous scenes on a rainy airstrip). Surround separation in the audio track is minor but noticeable, with the music and dialogue offering a cleanliness and vibrancy that outpaces other films from the same era. Some of Warner Archive's Blu-Ray presentations have been dogged by dated materials, but this one's a winner.
The same materials present on the now out-of-print DVD of The Americanization of Emily, which consist of an audio commentary by director Arthur Hiller, a vintage featurette (6:02) about shooting the beach scene, and the film's original theatrical trailer, have all been ported to this Blu-Ray disc.
The Americanization of Emily is an incredibly sharp piece of screenwriting, directed with restraint and performed with subtlety. To advertise it as a comedy, or even a romance, may set the wrong expectations, but this wartime drama is funny, and romantic nonetheless, while also skilfully skewering the idea of war. Warner Archive's Blu-Ray looks and sounds excellent, and ports its bonuses from a discontinued DVD. Highly recommended.
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