The Americanization of Emily: Love and Cynicism in WWII England

The Americanization of Emily (1964)Guest blogger Kristen Lopez writes:

There’s an anti-war film for every conflict America’s engaged in, but none more so than the anti-war movies created during the Vietnam era. The Americanization of Emily (1964) is a mixture of genres, blending and lampooning 1940s romance films through comedy, as well as presenting a harsh critique on the glorification of war and U.S. heroism.

Lieutenant Commander Charlie Madison (James Garner) is a Naval dog-robber, in charge of procuring pleasurable company and sundries for the top brass, during World War II in England. When he meets the cynical Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), he starts to question whether his life of cowardice is the right route to take.

Never expect anything less from Paddy Chayefsky, whose screenwriting work won him several awards, most notably for Network. The Americanization of Emily pairs him up with director Arthur Hiller; the two later worked on 1970′s The Hospital. The duo produce a beautifully rendered feature, composed in black and white, placing the audience back in the 1940s. The love between Charlie and Emily is a tale as old as time; two people from opposite ends of the Earth realizing each other’s flaws and working to change them. Emily is afraid of commitment after losing her husband, and thus enages in brief flirtations under the auspices the man will leave her by dying. She’s seen too many good men go to war and never come back. Conversely, Charlie isn’t willing to stick his neck out for anyone…sound like someone classic film fans know and love? If that doesn’t remind you of Casablanca, the argument between the lovers at the film’s climax definitely will. Charlie declares his love for Emily, forces her to confront her past, and lovingly calls her a bitch all while rain pours and a plane waits on the tarmac. Just one of many sequences where Chayefsky pokes fun at golden era films and their depictions of war.

The Americanization of Emily (1964) Starring James GarnerChayefsky does this because, for all their glamour and beauty, war films from the Golden Era did a lot to dispense American propaganda, glorifying the valor of our troops and our “liberation” of other countries. The script painfully gnaws at the idea of American heroism, from the opening crawl discussing how, out of all the dog robbers of the armed forces, the U.S. had the best. It isn’t enough that Charlie’s job is a makeshift pimp and blackmarket procurer, he must be the best of the American best. The job of self-glorifying the U.S. also comes across in the mentally unstable Admiral Colonel Jessup’s (Melvyn Douglas) attempts to orchestrate D-Day, creating a movie so he can promote the Navy as the first fighting force to land on the beach. This is where Chayefsky’s attack on 1940s war films comes to the fore. Is Jessup making a movie about D-Day, or turning D-Day into a movie?  His and his gung-ho second “Bus” Cummings’ (James Coburn), plan has no regard for human life, content to focus on providing a false idea of America as the great liberator. There’s nothing pretty or courageous about showing death. When Bus goes to Emily, presenting the photo of Charlie’s back as he storms on the beach (and presumed dead), Emily questions whether there’s a difference between death and sacrifice: “All he did was die.” In the end, Chayefsky states, it isn’t important why the person died; to their loved ones they aren’t coming back.

The Americanization of Emily (1964) Starring Julie AndrewsWith a script so acidic, it needs actors who prevent the audience from groaning in outrage, especially since none of these characters are perfect. James Garner is fantastic with his all-American good looks and dashing carriage. He’s perfect as the courageous American hero who can seduce a woman with a grin even as he’s slapping her backside. He’s the pimp you can’t help but adore. He’s also the perfect everyman to orient the audience to the problems of his character. When he’s forced to “reshoot,” restorm the beach because the moon didn’t come out (timing!), he throws his hands in the air, cursing the moon itself, “How could you do this to me?” Julie Andrews, teaming up with Garner before their 1982 pairing in Victor/Victoria, is darling as the “virgin goddess herself,” Emily. Emily is far from the virgin goddess, though, as evidenced by her desire to jump into a casual relationship with Charlie; it’s in the belief she can’t open her heart to love. When Charlie tells her his only flaw for her is “I’m alive,” it’s true and she understands that. Their relationship is doomed by the conventions of the plot, which you believe the characters are keenly aware of, as well as the misguided rationale of war itself. James Coburn, as the determined Bus Cummings, is a great role for the actor, especially with the running gag being he’s continually interrupted in flagrante delicto with various changing English women.

Warner Archive wisely put this out on Blu-ray for their fifth anniversary with audio commentary by director Hiller, a featurette and the theatrical trailer. The movie won an Oscar for its art direction and the black and white looks gorgeous on Blu, very clean and sharp. The commentary sounds recent and Hiller is often blank on specifics. There are some fun stories and he praises Chayefsky highly, calling him a true genius. He does go silent by movie’s end to the point where I thought I’d accidentally turned the commentary off. There’s also a brief, six-minute featurette on the filming of the Omaha Beach sequence, actually filmed on a beach in California!

The Americanization of Emily is a stinging anti-war movie, prescient for any time period. James Garner and Julie Andrews give you a taste of the chemistry they’d return to in Victor/Victoria. Warner Archive’s presented a beautiful Blu-ray transfer and it’s a great purchase!

Kristen Lopez is a college student studying for her Master’s in English. In her spare time she reviews vintage movies and does freelance writing for various entertainment websites. You can read more of her work at Journeys in Classic Film.

  • FalmouthBill

    A great, and I believe realistic movie, a certain Americans view of that war, at that time. What Julies’ character had seen, and lived through, couldn’t be imagined by James’ character.
    His character was a wheeling dealing, flippant, wisecracking guy who saw war as a way to get ahead. He never saw the real war, he just saw the potential it offered, It’s a comedy about the comedy of war, and some marvelous dialogue ! Please don’t think I am anti war, or pro war, I just thought this movie gave a different, and interesting view of war, like King rat did.

  • david hartzog

    Very perceptive take on a great film. I remember seeing the film at the time and leaving the theatre emotionally exhausted.

  • Cara

    This is one of my favorite anti-war movies. It’s one of my favorite love stories. It’s one of my favorite comedies. It is one of my favorite Julie Andrews roles, and I marvel at Melvin Douglas, who I contrast with the dapper gent I met in Ninotchka. All of these people are complex human beings caught up in chronic tragedy.

    I had forgotten the script was by Paddy Chayefsky. It has all the faults and brilliance of a Chayefsky script, and I forgive him his inevitable screeds. James Garner, however, manages to take those screeds and make them sound natural. It’s definitely one of Garner’s best films.

    Many years ago, I got the film as a gift, and it had been colorized. I was horrified and could never bring myself to watch it. Finally, I got it in its original b & w. Perfect.

  • Butch Knouse

    Charlie Madison earned the right to a soft job. He mentioned that he fought at Guadalcanal.

  • Pingback: James Garner: Remembering the Reluctant Hero