“The first dead American on Omaha Beach will be a sailor!”
Six years before Catch-22 and M*A*S*H were released in theaters, The Americanization of Emily appeared almost out of nowhere. Vietnam was still low on the boiling plate of the American conscience, however, this film does hold the distinction of being the first anti-war film of the Vietnam era. Sweet Julie Andrews, only a few months earlier had burst on to the screen in the Disney film, Mary Poppins (1964). Five months after the release of Emily, she would be forever anointed in the public’s mind as Miss Goody Two Shoes with more sugar than a Cuban cane field, after the release of The Sound of Music (1965). Yet, in between those two films, slipping under the public’s radar, Andrews appeared in this dark biting anti-war satire.
James Garner is Lt. Commander Charlie Madison whose official position is acting as an aide for Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas). More importantly Madison’s unofficial position is being a “dog robber,” an aide who will obtain whatever the Admiral wants, legally…or not so legally, and Charlie’s the best. Charlie’s bartering arsenal includes a large supply of Hershey bars, stockings, bourbon and clothes to get what he needs. Stationed in England just prior to the D-Day invasion, Charlie can “buy” anything his commanding officer desires including steak, wine and women. Everyone knows good ol’ Charlie and likes him. If Charlie needs a favor, a box or two of Hershey’s chocolates or maybe a couple of pairs of nylons will help secure it. Remember, this is England, heavily rationed during the war.
Women gently accept a pat on the fanny from Charlie because he treats them good, inviting them to dinner parties with senior officers, giving them dresses and accessories to wear and keep afterwards. The only one not moved by Charlie is Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a Brit motor pool driver assigned to the American Naval unit. Emily has already lost her father, brother and husband in various wars, and finds Charlie’s bartering of contraband goods, coarse, callous and self-serving, making the war one big party for him and his American mates while others suffer the pains of war. She tells him, “I believe in honor, service, courage, fair play, and cricket, and all the other symbols of British character, which have only civilized half the world!” To which Charlie responds, “You British plundered half the world for your own profit, let’s not pass it off as the Age of Enlightenment.”
Charlie’s rant continues, “You American haters bore me to tears, Ms. Barham. I’ve dealt with Europeans all my life. I know all about us pagans from the States who come over here and race around your old Cathedral towns with our cameras and Coca-Cola bottles, brawl in your pubs, paw at your women, and act like we own the world. We over-tip, we talk too loud, we think we can buy anything with a Hershey bar. I’ve had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven’t managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I’ve had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn’t introduce war into your little island. This war, Ms. Barham to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of two-thousand years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don’t blame it on our Coca-Cola bottles.”
I quote the dialogue so extensively simply because it’s what makes this film so powerful. Based on a novel by William Bradford Huie with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky who would later go on to expose the lunacy of other institutions in The Hospital(1971) and Network(1976), Chayefsky uses Huie’s novel as a launching pad to sound off on his anti-war, anti-establishment tirades. If it’s a bit much at times you don’t mind because the dialogue is rich and clever. James Garner who has the pleasure of delivering the majority of the best lines gives hands down his best performance on film. He’s easily enjoying himself in the role of an activist for cowardly behavior, and proud of it. Garner was probably aware that he may never get the chance again to read such great writing.
Despite the initial bad start, and Emily’s resolve to never again fall for a man who was about to go off to war and die, she and Charlie fall in love. After all, she thought, Charlie was an officer’s aide stationed in the back lines, he was safe, or so she thought.
When Admiral Jessup’s depression over his wife’s death sends him off the deep end, he becomes convinced the Navy is losing the war…the war on publicity that is, with the Army and Marines getting all the glory in the European theater of operations. With the D-Day invasion only a short time away, Admiral Jessup becomes convinced that the first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor, and he wants Charlie there on the front lines to film it! Poor Charlie is now forced to choose between a court-martial, if he refuses the orders, or being the first man on Omaha Beach with only a sixteen millimeter camera to shoot. The Admiral Jessup character can easily be seen as a cousin or predecessor to Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in Network, another Chayefsky character who goes off the deep end, in this case, to satirize the craziness of how far TV would go to “entertain.”
The Americanization of Emily was filmed in black and white at a time when Hollywood was shooting everything in color. Director Arthur Hiller appropriately fought for this right against studio heads who wanted to expand the film’s commercial potential by using a bright color palette. The darkness of black and white is more in synch with the mood, ideas and message expressed in the film. It also smoothly matches actual newsreel footage of the D-Day invasion incorporated into the film.
James Garner and Julie Andrews made a great team. Garner confesses in his recent, and blunt memoir (The Garner Files), the lovely Ms. Andrews was a great kisser and he really enjoyed doing their love scenes. They would reunite on-screen some eighteen years later in her husband’s (Blake Edwards) Victor, Victoria. Also in the cast is James Coburn as the one officer who takes Admiral Jessup’s “invasion” plan seriously setting up his friend Charlie to be the first casualty on D-Day. Others in the cast include Kennan Wynn, William Windom, Joyce Grenfell and Alan Sues. A very young Judy Carne, best known as the “sock it to me” girl from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, has a small role as one of Coburn’s bed partners. Also, if you have a quick eye, you will spot Sharon Tate and Kent McCord (Adam-12) in walk-ons.