Brilliant antiwar satire ahead of its time ___ 9/10
Review by Brian Wright
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Madison: I don’t want to know what’s good, or bad, or true. I let God worry about the truth. I just want to know the momentary fact about things. Life isn’t good, or bad, or true. It’s merely factual, it’s sensual, it’s alive. My idea of living sensual facts are you, a home, a country, a world, a universe. In that order. I want to know what I am, not what I should be.
James Garner … Lt. Cmdr. Charles 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
Keenan Wynn … Old Sailor
William Windom … Capt. Harry Spaulding
The Americanization of Emily is a war story morality play set on its ear, where, instead of valor, cowardice is held up as an ideal. Notice I did not lead with the classic quotation from Charles Madison (James Garner) concerning Americans and how they don’t need to apologize to Europeans for their typical ‘Ugly American’ behavior. For one thing, while I agree the Europeans are no one to emulate I also see nothing to justify a Pax Americana empire of the booboisie. A pox on both their paxes. Madison, whose main function is procurement for military brass—he’s assigned to a Navy admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas)—, has every intention of serving out World War II in style. None of that nasty fighting for him!
In return for seeing that his military bosses get the red carpet treatment—food, drink, accommodations, attentions from the fair gender, you name it—Charles Madison basically has all the comforts he wants as well. His younger assistant, Lt. Cmdr. Bus Cummings (James Coburn), also gets a pleasant ride, which he spends making whoopee with a different English hottie every night. Madison is the epitome of culture and refinement. He makes sure the table settings are just so, the caviar is fresh, and the surrounding art of the highest quality. In this day and age, such a role would typically fall to one a bit ‘lighter in the slippers.’ Though Charlie is true blue heterosexual, when it comes to the women, he’s more an arranger for others than a hound on his own. He has a very entertaining life.
Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), one of the women in the motor-and-general-services pool, is Madison’s driver. Her husband has died in the war, and, indeed, her family has a long history of military sacrifice. She initially resists Charlie’s social arrangements, finding the whole custom of local women, in their off time, showing a good time to the Yank-officer class, a bit seedy. [The movie was made in 1964, and the setting is 20 years previous to that, so we still have protocol: meaning, even though there was a fair amount of actual boffing going on, it's nothing like current times. Showing a man a good time, then, generally did not mean going to bed with him, more the necking and other close contact. If the man wanted to get laid, he sought the services of a prostitute. Pregnancy a much bigger concern.]
Charlie is a good looking guy, and seems to be kindhearted. When he tells her that she’s a bit of a prude (for not wanting to mingle socially with the high officers he caters to), she goes through some reflection back at her barracks, then ultimately decides to go ahead and be the bridge partner for some general or admiral poobah. It leads to nothing with the officer, but she and Charlie begin to fall for each other. [The Americanization of Emily is purported to be the favorite movie of the leading man (Garner), the leading lady (Andrews), and the director (Hiller); this is a remarkable coalescence considering the vast body of work of all three persons.]
So the romantic part of the romantic antiwar comedy starts in earnest. Julie Andrews is so wonderfully and unabashedly sexy in this movie… which actually comes after Mary Poppins and before The Sound of Music—two monster-hit movies that made her a superstar, yet also typecast her as a goody two-shoes, Pollyanna-ish girl. Charlie and Emily almost immediately run into the war/antiwar ideological conflict. Emily and her mother (Joyce Grenfell), in particular, are truly preoccupied with the subject of war, with its supposed necessity, the heroism of those who fight for their country, and—in their own lives—the loss of family that England’s wars had claimed. Thus they tend to make war and participation in war a moral virtue.
Charlie defies the conventions of the day—even the overwhelming patriotic sentimentality that persists into our day—by insisting that there is nothing at all that warrants any reverence or glorification of the enterprise of war, even and perhaps especially the peculiar habit we have of according special virtue to those who die for their country. Just think, toward the end of the biggest war in history, on the eve of the D-Day invasion, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy speaks frankly—though usually out of earshot of the VIPs—on the total uselessness and banality of war. He would have agreed with the following quote from Joseph Sobran:
War is just another big-government [deadly] program.
Or to use Charlie’s words:
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.
Charlie’s impolitic views cause Emily and her mother to do respective double takes, then Emily rejects him entirely… until her mother, literally steeped in the sacrifice of all her men, has a flash of insight and comes to see things Charlie’s way, even more so. Mrs. Barham’s about face then seems to influence her daughter’s attitude, and Emily is crazy about Charlie anyway.
The best part of the movie is yet to come. Let me only tell you it reeks of irony in that Charlie winds up the stuckee in a bizarre Navy PR campaign to rival the absurdity of M.A.S.H. or other artistic lampoons of the military bureaucracy. He actually could be killed. Will he in fact be hoist on the petard he so vociferously opposes? Let me leave you with that… and some banter back from Emily when Charlie threatens to expose the truth to the detriment of his own prudent future:
Charlie: Emily, I want the world to know what a fraud war is.
Emily: But war isn’t a fraud, Charlie, it’s very real. At least that’s what you always tried to tell me, isn’t it? That we shall never get rid of war by pretending it’s unreal? It’s the virtue of war that’s the fraud, not war itself. It’s the valor and the self-sacrifice and the goodness of war that needs the exposing. And here you are being brave and self-sacrificing, positively clanking with moral fervor, perpetuating the very things you detest merely to do “the right thing.” Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.
 My own antiwar sentiments differ slightly, but only as to my acknowledgment of the financial powers that drive war (and engender in society the ideology of war that Charlie Madison so eloquently demolishes).