Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Americanization of Emily (1964)

The Americanization of Emily (1964) *** ½
Directed by: Arthur Hiller.
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky based on the novel by William Bradford Huie.
Starring: James Garner (Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison), Julie Andrews (Emily Barham), Melvyn Douglas (Adm. William Jessup), James Coburn (Lt. Cmdr. Paul 'Bus' Cummings), Joyce Grenfell (Mrs. Barham), Edward Binns (Adm. Thomas Healy), Liz Fraser (Sheila).

Paddy Chayefsky was one of the best screenwriters in movie history. He is, of course, best known for his amazing screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), which was a daring and funny satire at the time, which has come to look more like prophecy today. No matter what he did, he did it his way. When he wrote the screenplay for The Americanization of Emily, he was given a serious book, and turned it into a sly, cynical, at times downright hilarious look at patriotism, war, heroism and cowardice. The book wasn’t meant to be read that way, but that’s how Chayefsky read it, and that’s what he wrote in the screenplay.

The movie stars James Garner as Lt. Cmdr. Charles Madison, who acts as a “dog runner” for Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) – essentially meaning that Madison does all of Jessup’s dirty work for him, getting the supplies the Admiral needs, whether that’s liquor, food or women. He is brash and charming, and very good at his job. It is 1944, and they are all in England, preparing for D-Day. Madison doesn’t have to worry about fighting and dying for his country – he has a cushy desk job. But Jessup has been acting really strange lately- the stress of his wife dying, and the upcoming invasion may well have pushed him over the brink of sanity. He is determined that the first man to die on D-Day be in the Navy – and what’s more that they capture that death on film – in order to use it to get more money and attention for the Navy, who has been overshadowed by the infantry this war. He assigns Madison to get the job done – but the job is simply put, insanity and a suicide mission. But Jessup is determined to see the movie completed, and he has powerful friends who don’t want to cross him, and so, Madison has to do it.

This plot thread is offset against a more sweet love story, between Madison and Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a young Englishwoman who works as a driver on the base. She is initially offended by Madison – the casual way he slaps the ass of every woman on the base (and how they all seem to love it) – so when he tries it with her, she slaps him. But of course, she is no match for his charms, and soon the two are in love.

What I loved about The Americanization of Emily is how cynical it is towards war and death. Madison rejects the idea that dying for your country is heroic in itself, and hates that everyone in the country has a romantic view of war. His brother died in battle, and they made such a big deal of it at home that his other brother cannot wait to turn 18 to get his chance to die as well. Madison does not reject the idea of war, or of fighting and dying for your country, but wants people to go into with their eyes open – that war is ugly, cruel and violent, and death is not heroic but tragic. He doesn’t want to go along with the boys on D-Day to film the initial invasion because he doesn’t think that dying for the sake of Navy PR is a worthy enough cause. They still do not make many movies that show American soldiers in a truly horrible light, and I cannot recall another one where the “hero” of the movie is quite clearly a “coward” as Madison is.

This cynical realism extends to the relationship between Garner and Andrews as well. This is not some fantasy of the innocent British girl falling in love with the heroic American. For one thing, Madison is far from heroic. For another, Emily is far from innocent. Early on the in the movie she admits that she “just can’t say no” to men who are about to go off and fight for their country. The movie paints a darker picture than most of the relationships between the men and women on the base – essentially it is a slightly more innocent of prostitution, where the women sleep with the men to get some more luxuries out of them – luxuries that they would not have a hope of getting otherwise. I also love how this is the only time in any Julie Andrews movie that I have seen that someone calls her a bitch. Take that Mary Poppins!

Garner and Andrews play their roles pretty much perfectly. I understand better now than ever before why Garner was a star. He is charming, good looking and funny throughout this movie, delivering Chayefsky’s lines the way they were meant to be delivered. Andrews, in only her second movie role (after Mary Poppins, right before The Sound of Music), is less wide eyed and innocent, and much harsher here. Yes, she is still lovable, but in a different way. James Coburn, as Madison’s best friend, who turns out to be a little more gung ho than anticipated, and Melvyn Douglas as the crazed Admiral, lend excellent support.

The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, who has had a checkered career. Along with The Hospital (1971), also written by Chayefsky, I think The Americanization of Emily is the best film of his career (infinitively better than the ever popular soap opera Love Story). The best thing Hiller does in this film is get out of the way – he lets Chayefsky’s screenplay and the performances by Garner and Andrews take center stage, and he merely stands back.

You don’t hear people talk about The Americanization of Emily much anymore. Perhaps its because Hiller isn’t thought of as a great director, and people don’t take Garner or Andrews as seriously as perhaps they should. Or perhaps its simply because the film came out the same year and Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant war satire Dr. Strangelove, and any satire next to that one looks tame by comparison. But the film is rock solid, funny, cynical, witty and expertly written and acted. It certainly deserves a re-evaluation.

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