Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Americanization of Emily


This is one of those movies that made a great impression on me when it was new. I was a senior in high school and hadn’t really thought much about military service. I was going to be a student, I’d have a deferment, and surely the war in Southeast Asia couldn’t go on much longer. (I didn’t know it but I’d spend the next eight years of my life fighting the draft board.) I had seen as many gung-ho war movies as any other boy, and I’m sure I found them exciting, but I had only begun to think about war itself, the morality and horror of it, about a year before, when I read the book that has had the single largest influence on my life of any book I ever read: Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece, Catch-22. Yossarian was a self-described coward. He knew people were dying, and many more were going to die, and he was determined that he wouldn’t be one of them. “What if everybody thought the way you do?” Appleby asked him at one point. “Then I’d be a damn fool to think any different,” Yossarian replied. I had never considered bravery or cowardice in myself. Which would I show under fire? And did I want to find out? The answer was a resounding no. Yossarian was a coward, and I liked him very much.

This movie tells the story of another coward, Charlie Madison (James Garner). I like that about him. He is a “dog-robber,” and I don’t like that about him, but given the opportunity, I probably would have become one, too. (I always felt that if I had to go into the Army, I could be the best goldarn clerk/typist stationed in Germany the goldarn Army ever had. Hell, I could be practically anything, so long as it was Stateside.) What’s a dog-robber? A procurer and pimp, basically. His job is to make sure his general or admiral is always supplied with the best liquor and food. He deals in chocolate bars and stockings, and supplies women when the officers get together. In short, he is scum, but not quite as scummy as the senior officers themselves. (I think all generals should survive on nothing but K-rations during wartime. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.) Emily (Julie Andrews) is a driver (a WREN?) in London, and she observes the conspicuous consumption and is quite naturally angry about it. These Yanks are eating things Brits haven’t seen in four years. “You Americans are really enjoying this war, aren’t you?” Charlie listens, and puts her in her place by pointing out that Americans are here to straighten out problems caused by 2000 years of European idiocy. They both have a point, and I think they both know it. Charlie saw combat briefly in the Pacific and decided it wasn’t for him. He has lost a brother, and his younger brother is reaching draft age. Emily has lost a father, a brother, and a husband. They become lovers, “for the duration.” Naturally, it quickly becomes something deeper than that.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s admiral (Melvyn Douglas) suffers a mental collapse and becomes obsessed with the idea that “The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor!” Through various plot machinations, Charlie ends up in the first wave of LSTs, ordered to make a movie of the Navy demolition teams blowing up mines. But before that, he tries everything he knows to get out of it, and this offends Emily, who breaks up with him. She seems to realize the fool’s errand he is being sent on (he doesn’t even know how to operate a camera), but that idiotic old British stiff upper lip that led 600 poor saps in the Light Brigade to obey the orders of an idiot commander and charge directly into Russian cannons in the Crimea … and then to write a poem glorifying this epic fuckup!—trips her up. (“Half a league, half a league,/ half a league onward,/ Into the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred.” Where they were promptly slaughtered as Lord Cardigan looked on.) Charlie is reported dead, and a picture of him becomes a sensation. He’s a hero! Only he’s not dead, just wounded (by his own superior, wonderfully played by James Coburn), and he’s back and intends to tell the truth about what happened. But Emily points out that would be a brave thing to do, because you’d go to gaol. Why don’t you remain a coward?

There are so many things to think about in this movie. It moved me deeply at the time, and I still debate with myself about the ending. This is one of the great Paddy Chayefsky‘s best scripts, and that’s saying a lot. It wasn’t until 1967 and Richard Lester‘s How I Won the War that I saw another film as deeply cynical about war. In that movie, Michael Crawford and John Lennon and others were assigned to build a cricket pitch behind enemy lines. All die except Crawford, the commander.