That night, I sat in the jungles of Guadalcanal, waiting to be killed, sopping wet. Then I had my blinding revelation: I discovered I was a coward. That’s my new religion. I’m a coward. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world.
~ Charlie Madison in The Americanization of Emily
In the War on Terrorism, our steadfast leaders in Washington and their accomplices in the press assure us that the military campaign in Afghanistan has been successful in eliminating the al-Qaida terrorist installations and “degrading” their communications capability. To learn that the military has been successful in killing scores of innocent civilians with wayward bombs, or that a Red Cross building has been hit, or that the Northern Alliance that we are supporting may be even worse than the Taliban, one is more likely discover these facts at Antiwar.com or through the foreign press. Our own domestic major media stoke the fires of patriotism, inciting blind flag-waving and war drum beating from sea to shining sea. Never do we hear the admonition of Charlie Madison: cowardice will save the world.
The Americanization of Emily (1964) is a great anti-war film. Directed by Arthur Hiller, it takes place in London during the month before D-Day in the spring of 1944. Lieutenant Commander Charlie Madison (James Garner) is a charismatic “Dog Robber” for Navy Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas). A “Dog Robber” is a sort of personal assistant whose chief duty is that of procurement officer, charged with keeping his admiral or general “well-clothed, well-fed and well-loved during the battle” with considerable emphasis on the latter. Emily Barham (Julie Andrews) is a war widow working the motor pool who is assigned to drive Charlie to the supply station to pick up steaks, eggs, fruit and plenty of booze for a swank officers’ party. When Charlie convinces the supply officer – three bottles of bourbon proving to be exceedingly persuasive – to provide him with everything on his wish list, Emily is chagrined:
You Americans are really enjoying this war, aren’t you? Most English families haven’t seen that many oranges or eggs in years. But it’s just one big Shriners’ convention for you Yanks, isn’t it?
So while the people back home who are funding the war live under draconian rations, those in power enjoy epicurean and sensual pleasures that would make the characters in Fellini Satyricon blush. This is an unfortunately typical hallmark of the State: those in power appropriate the people’s money and fritter it away on themselves and their cronies.
Despite Emily’s initial annoyance with the imperious American, she accepts his invitation to the party.
One of the dominant themes of the film is the nature of inter-service competition and bickering. At the lavish gathering, Charlie, Emily, Adm. Jessup and Army General William Hallerton (Paul Newlan) play a seemingly pleasant game of bridge, but Jessup wastes no time in complaining the Navy will not receive its due credit in the invasion of Normandy:
Jessup: Willie, I don’t like the way the Navy’s publicity is being handled in overlord. I want extreme measures to be taken to publicize the Navy’s role in this invasion. The President supports me in this.
Hallerton: We received your cables, Jessie, but I don’t know what you mean by extreme measures.
Jessup: I want a Marine division to be the first assault wave.
Hallerton: Good Lord, you’re not going to drag that old chestnut in.
Jessup: The Marines are traditional shark troops and you know it.
Hallerton: Not in the European theater of operations, they’re not. You know, you Navy guys got all of the headlines in the South Pacific, but Europe’s an Army show. It’s been clearly understood from the beginning, Jessie.
Jessup: I’ve written to the Supreme Commander about this.
Hallerton: Yes, one of the reasons he’s out of town. You must be off your rocker, Jessie, if you think assault changes can be made at this stage of preparations. You know when the balloon’s going up. I’ve been instructed to say that we’re going to put on a few more Navy staff officers at Supreme Headquarters. We’re going to push the PRO people to send out more Navy releases. The Supreme Commander wants it clear that he considers this inter-service competitiveness in very bad taste. He’s having enough trouble keeping the English and French in line. Marine division! You must be losing your mind, Jessie.
Little does Hallerton know that he has foreshadowed Jessup’s encroaching dementia. When Emily decides she likes Charlie after all, she shows up in his room later that night. As they begin to engage in passionate osculation, Jessup bursts into the room and declares, “The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor.” This line is then repeated by several characters as a way to accentuate its sheer folly.
The next morning, Charlie pays his new lover a visit at her London home, which she shares with her mother. He brings a gift that is purely American, but Emily, ever the idealist, is far from pleased:
Emily: You brought me some chocolates.
Charlie: Two boxes of Hershey’s.
Emily: Well, that’s very American of you, Charlie. You just had to bring along some small token of opulence. Well, I don’t want them. You Yanks can’t even show affection without buying something.
Charlie: Well don’t get into a state over it. I thought you liked chocolates.
Emily: I do, but my country’s at war and we’re doing without chocolates for a while. And I don’t want oranges or eggs or soap flakes, either. Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.
When Charlie notices some photographs on the mantel, Emily explains that she has lost her father, brother and husband to the war. He responds by saying, “I’m not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows.”
Emily warns him that her mother is a bit mad and has taken to referring to her fallen husband and son as though they were still alive. He does his best to charm Mrs. Barham (Joyce Grenfell), and then initially attempts to impart his views on war in a facetious manner:
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he’s capable of … it’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us – it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.
She is completely oblivious to his irony:
That was exalting, Commander … after every war, you know, we always find out how unnecessary it was. And after this one, I’m sure all the generals will dash off and write books about the blunders made by other generals, and statesmen will publish their secret diaries, and it’ll show beyond any shadow of a doubt that war could easily have been avoided in the first place. And the rest of us, of course, will be left with the job of bandaging the wounded and baying the dead.
His mockery unsuccessful, Charlie makes his point as clear as possible in one of the most pointed, devastating anti-war monologues ever heard in film:
Charlie: I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades … we shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio – an everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud.
Mrs. Barham: You’re very hard on your mother. It seems a harmless enough pretense to me.
Charlie: No, Mrs. Barham. No, you see, now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September. May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.
Charlie’s compelling speech is so stunning, so jarring, that Mrs. Barham snaps out of her delusional denial and admits aloud, for the first time, that her husband and son are dead.
Meanwhile, the unbalanced Adm. Jessup is obsessed with the prospect that the Army’s long-range bomber program may render the Navy obsolete. He is due to address the Joint Committee on Military Affairs in Washington at the end of June and he fears the services will be unified. As a third-generation naval officer, Jessup can’t imagine a more appalling development. He orders Charlie to assemble a film crew to be the first to land on the beach to record the heroic work of the Navy demolition engineers on D-Day. Charlie, who has always assumed that his role as Dog Robber would keep him far from the fray, risks court martial to object to the order:
Charlie: Sir, I get the feeling a man could get killed making this movie.
Jessup: A lot of men are going to get killed on D-Day, Charlie.
Charlie: I would like to be relieved of this assignment, sir. It seems like a lot of risk to take for no particular reason.
Jessup: I’m ordering you to make this film, Commander. That’s reason enough.
Charlie: Seems to me, sir, the only thing at stake here is a matter of naval public relations.
Jessup: No, Commander. What’s at stake here is the essence of military structure, the inviolability of command. I’ve given you an order. You’ll obey it or I’ll have you brigged.
In war, it is not nations that fight, but rather their governments. This inevitably involves conscripts of the respective governments killing each other in great numbers. The war within the war is often the inter-service battle between the various branches of the military, as its leaders jockey for promotions and glory. And even within each service, another war rages: the rivalry between those in the field and those behind desks; between those who were trained in the academies and those who came from the civilian ranks. A classic scene illustrates this reality when Adm. Jessup is five minutes from leaving for a crucial meeting of the Supreme Command when he cracks up. Lieutenant Commander Bus Cummings (James Coburn) busts into Captain Harry Spaulding’s office to inform him that Jessup has lost his marbles. When Harry investigates, he sees Jessup leaving for the meeting, and he looks just fine to him:
Harry: All right, what the hell is this all about, huh?
Charlie: Harry, the Admiral is a very sick man.
Harry: This kind of joke is tasteless enough from you, too, but from an Academy man, it is obscene! You shore soldiers oughta do a little tour of sea duty just to find out exactly what the Navy –
Bus: ALL RIGHT, Spaulding. I’ve had about enough of your bilge! This blowhard here did four months as a mess officer in the South Pacific and he’s been spouting old sea salt ever since. I didn’t ask for a desk job. I’ve applied for sea duty seven times and you know it! Just don’t start pulling Academy on me. I was a cadet four-striper. You never made more than midshipman.
Harry: This outburst is bad joss, Commander, bad joss.
Bus: Yeah, well just don’t start jacking me up like you were my senior cadet officer, that’s all.
Charlie: Look, while you two schoolboys are standing –
Bus: And I don’t want to hear any more cracks about us schoolboys. You civilian sailors seem to think there’s something funny about a man taking pride in his service. Well, sir, permit me to inform you: I am damn proud of being an Annapolis man, SIR! I didn’t ask for a lousy desk job. I’ve got bad eyes. What can I do? You think I want to tell my kids that on D-Day their father was shacked up at the Westchester Hotel?
Bus fails to comprehend that were he to possess 20/20 vision, he would very likely never have any kids to which to tell his war stories.
Adm. Jessup is still obsessed with his movie project, so much so that he has written the president about it and gained FDR’s sanction. When Bus learns that the president is on board, his patriotism takes over and he insists to Charlie that the movie will be made. He tells him that they will board a plane at 2100 hours on the night of June 4. In Jessup’s room, the Admiral lets slip that “the balloon will go up” at precisely 2130 hours the same night. Charlie has been thinking in vain about an angle to get out of making the movie, and here his boss hands him the solution: by the time Charlie and his movie crew make it to the theater, the D-Day troops will have already departed for the beach. All that day, which he spends with Emily, he crows about the deception that he will perpetrate and how he will manage to avoid the fighting. In a driving rainstorm at the airport, Emily registers her disgust for Charlie’s chicanery:
Emily: I despise cowardice, I detest selfish people and I loathe ruthlessness. Since you are cowardly, selfish and ruthless, I cannot help but despise, detest and loathe you. And that is not the way a woman should feel about the man she’s going to marry … I suppose I’m just a stupid romantic, but I sort of feel the joke’s on me, too. I believe in honor and service and courage and fair play and cricket and all the other symbols of the British character, which have only civilized half the world.
Charlie: You British plundered half the world for your own profit. Let’s not pass it off as The Age of Enlightenment.
Emily: That’s the American way of looking at it, isn’t it?
Charlie: Emily, let’s not get into one of these “the trouble with you Yanks” things. It’s got nothing to do with it.
Emily: It’s got everything to do with it. I’m British and you’re a bloody fool American. I never want to see you again.
Charlie plays it cool when the English officers ridicule him and Bus for showing up two hours late. Assigned a cot in a supply depot, Charlie enjoys the best night’s sleep of his life, the kind of restfulness that can only come from a sense of great relief following unparalleled stress. When he finally awakens, a private informs him that all the vessels had to turn around because “the moon didn’t come out.” Much to his distress, Charlie learns that fate has consigned him to facing live combat after all.
As you might have guessed by now, Charlie himself becomes the first American to die on Omaha Beach. A picture of him dashing across the beach dodging bullets ends up on the front page of every newspaper and on the cover of Life Magazine.
Bus pays a visit to the Barham home to offer his condolences to Emily, who has been holed up in her room for days. In a conversation with Mrs. Barham, he is almost drunk with enthusiasm over Charlie’s putative heroism:
Bus: Charlie’s a hero, ma’am. Our public relations office is talking now of holding some sort of ceremony over his grave, building some sort of monument.
Mrs. Barham: A monument?
Bus: Well, probably nothing more than a simple bronze plaque, but the free French have indicated they’d be willing to declare Charlie’s grave a French National Shrine.
Mrs. Barham: That’s depraved!
Bus: Now, as soon as I get an extra copy of Life, I’ll bring it to you.
Mrs. Barham: Whatever for?
Bus: This picture of Charlie’s on the cover of Life Magazine.
Mrs. Barham: That’s shoddy: a French national monument. I suppose one must expect that sort of thing from the French, but you’re supposed to be his friend. Couldn’t you have done something more to keep this sordid business out of the press? Of course, we’re all very disappointed in Charlie, but he’s paid his price and there’s no need to rake it up.
Bus: No, I don’t think you have this exactly right, Mrs. Barham. You see, Charlie’s a hero.
Mrs. Barham: Emily, I must warn you: Charlie’s picture is in all the papers and they’re going to put up a monument on his grave.
Emily: What on earth for? All he did was die. Dear me, we shall be celebrating cancer and automobile smash-ups next.
Bus: He didn’t just die, Emily. He sacrificed his life. He was the first American to die on Omaha Beach.
Emily: Was there a contest?
Bus: Emily, I don’t understand you. I thought you’d be proud.
Emily: We no longer take pride in death in this house, Bus. What was admirable about Charlie was his sensation of life, his cowardly, selfish, greedy appreciation of life, unadorned and uncertain as it is.
And so, despite losing her father, brother, husband and several cousins to war, it takes the tragic and wholly unnecessary death of her new lover for Emily to realize the imprudence of her idealism, for her to become “Americanized.”
The movie ends with a twist, which I shall not reveal here.
The Americanization of Emily is an intoxicating anti-war film that blends its message seamlessly with romantic and comedic elements. It’s highly entertaining and would be worth viewing even without the anti-war sentiment. The cast is first-rate, especially the performances of Garner, Coburn and Douglas. Julie Andrews is perfect as Emily, and it is not at all hard to believe that the Garner character could fall in love with her overnight.
Arthur Hiller (The Hospital, The Out-of-Towners) directs with a flair for pacing and comedy. Cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, who also photographed The Pink Panther and Days of Wine and Roses, gives us a sumptuous black and white film. In many ways, black and white films are superior to those in color, and that is clear in this film.
The underlying strength of the film is Paddy Chayefsky’s witty screenplay, based on William Bradford Huie’s novel. Chayefsky penned the script for the overlooked The Hospital and earned a richly deserved Oscar for Network. Charlie’s anti-war homily while speaking with Mrs. Barham is masterful. Chayefsky employs the Magic of Three to great comedic effect. In the opening scenes, Charlie pats three women on the posterior (remember, it’s a 1964 film), the third of which is his driver (Emily). This earns him a slap on the face, which he wears as a badge of honor. On three different occasions, Charlie barges into Bus’ room without knocking, each time finding him in bed with a different English girl in various stages of undress. Only when Charlie hears the phrase “the balloon’s going up” for the third time does he pay attention to the fact that this is code-slang for D-Day.
One of the risks of watching a dreadful film is the loss of two hours of your valuable time, and let’s face it: life is short enough as it is. No such risk is entailed in screening The Americanization of Emily, a superb anti-war film that entertains from the opening credits until fade to black.