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.
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