Adapted by legendary satirical screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Network, The Hospital) from William Bradford Huie’s popular novel, Arthur Hiller’s The Americanization of Emily offers a scathing critique of the military establishment, war, and its pervasive glorification. Arguing that international conflicts are neither noble nor inevitable, Hiller’s 1964 anti-war satire created some controversy thanks to its portrait of lascivious, drunken, egomaniacal military bigwigs and its elevation of James Garner’s Charlie Madison, a self-described “practicing coward,” as its hero. Madison is a “dog robber” whose job requires him to pimp women, booze, and culinary delicacies for his corrupt, hypocritical superiors stationed in London on the eve of D-Day, and what he finds really appealing about his cushy post is that it keeps him from the front lines where, years earlier, he decided that dying in battle was a foolish fate better suited for those who believed in doing “the right thing.” Madison’s U.S.-bred egotism and consumerism-laced cockiness both repulses and fascinates his driver Emily (Julie Andrews, in only her second screen role), a British war widow with a romantic penchant for falling in love with soldiers shortly before they ship out to certain death. Yet the two fall hopelessly in love despite their squabbling about the righteousness of war, an argument in which Madison takes the side of self-interest and Emily that of altruism.
Though a bit overstuffed with long-winded speeches, Chayefsky’s scabrously funny script brims with snappy, crackling dialogue, from Madison casually telling someone on the phone “Hey, these Russians still like their women short, fat, and reactionary” to characters’ repeated references to the Normandy Invasion as a “balloon…about to go up” and “The Big Show.” Madison eventually finds himself in a predicament when his boss, admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), decides (during a bout of “cracking up”) that the Navy can only prevent itself from being marginalized by making sure a sailor is the first man to die on Omaha Beach, and assigns Madison and his best friend Bus (James Coburn), a gung-ho lieutenant commander and wanton ladies man, to make a film of this historic, heroic death. Repulsed by this “matter of Naval public relations,” a task Jessup contends is important because it’s “the essence of military structure, the inviolability of command,” Madison attempts to finagle his way out of this foolhardy mission, and his rebellion is fueled by a conviction that war is a staged, man-made affair (not unlike a movie) motivated less by necessity than by misguided visions of warfare as an arena in which men prove their gallantry. As Madison tells Emily’s mother, “It’s not war that’s insane; it’s the morality of it.”
Unfortunately, this line of reasoning, while certainly containing some truth, is ill suited to the film’s setting on the cusp of WWII, a just campaign to defeat global fascism that wasn’t merely concocted by crazed, loutish military officials. Hiller and Chayefsky never fully reconcile their frequently spot-on criticism of the armed forces (and combat) with the fact that fighting Hitler was both justified and essential, and this disconnect is further felt in the opposites-attract romance between Madison and Emily, which produces some wonderful moments, including Madison’s Hershey bar kiss-off to Emily before flying to Normandy, but seems more than a bit far-fetched. Still, The Americanization of Emily‘s wry, sardonic take on the absurdity of war (an attitude that would later inform M*A*S*H and Catch-22) is kept afloat by its sterling leads, who manage to smoothly balance frivolous farce with a measure of sobering poignancy. Having recently hit it big with Mary Poppins (and poised to star in The Sound of Music the following year), Andrews conveys an adult maturity unseen in her iconic family-friendly blockbusters, smoothly preventing her cuteness from undermining her character’s fear and anxiety over loving a rascal. And in a role tailor-made for his handsome, roguish charm, Garner—exhibiting a deft comedic touch during moments such as Madison’s yellowbellied conduct on Omaha Beach—turns his mischievous scalawag into an amusing symbol of the integrity found in spinelessness.