Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Americanization of Emily (1964)


In the past, I ve done “Robin’s Underrated Gems” columns on the works of legendary screenwriter/playwright Paddy Chayefsky, including The Hospital, his dark satire about the inner workings of the medical industry, and Altered States, his pseudo-scientific LSD trip disguised as a feature film. One of the reasons Chayefsky was such a renowned writer is because many of his works were way ahead of their time. A lot of the horrific situations presented in The Hospital might have seemed unbelievable way back in 1971, but don’t look so absurd today. Likewise, his iconic 1976 film, Network, probably looked like an over-the-top satire about television when it originally came out, but it practically feels like documentary over 35 years later. Chayefsky first found success in the film industry after doing a screen adaptation of his television drama, Marty, which won “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards and garnered Chayefsky an Oscar for his screenplay. In 1964, Chayefsky would take on one of his most unusual assignments when did a screen adaptation of William Bradford Huie’s novel, The Americanization of Emily. Huie had served in the United States Navy during World War II and was present at D-Day, so he decided to use his experiences as the basis for his story. It should be mentioned the original novelization of The Americanization of Emily was serious in tone and did not seem to have any comedic intent at all. However, when Paddy Chayefsky read it, he thought the story could be the basis for a very funny satire. In the end, the film version of The Americanization of Emily became an absurdist look at the glorification of heroism in war, and it covers themes which are more prevalent today than ever before.

The story takes place in London in 1944 and the protagonist is Lt. Commander Charlie Madison (James Garner), who works as a “dog robber” in the U.S. Navy. His job is basically to ensure that high-ranking naval officers are kept as comfortable as possible, so his main duties involve providing them with luxury goods (in spite of the fact that many of these goods are in short supply in war-torn England) and the company of women. Charlie works for an old-time veteran, Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), and is quite happy to have this cushy assignment since he was nearly killed in combat earlier in the war. However, Admiral Jessup has started to become mentally unstable and is growing paranoid that since the Army and Air Corps have garnered all the attention during the war, the government will decide to make serious cuts to the Navy once the war is over. With D-Day on the horizon, Jessup suddenly declares: “The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor”. He becomes obsessed with making a documentary film which will show a Navy man dying a heroic death on D-Day, and Charlie is put in charge of organizing this assignment. However, Charlie has no desire to risk his life for such an absurd idea, especially since he has become involved with Emily Barnham (Julie Andrews), a British driver from the motor pool. Charlie had made a bad first impression by smacking Emily on the ass, which lead to him getting slapped in the face. However, even though she doesn t support many of his ideals, Emily eventually warms up to Charlie and the two of them begin a romance together.

Charlie does whatever he can to avoid a trip to Omaha Beach, but runs into trouble with his friend, Lt. Commander Bus Cummings (James Coburn). Bus also initially thought that Jessup s idea was insane, but he eventually succumbs to the patriotic brainwashing and demands that Charlie put his life on the line on D-Day while the cameras are rolling. It goes without saying that The Americanization of Emily is about as unconventional a World War II film as you’re likely to see and that its messages might compel some ultra-patriotic Americans to scream at the TV. What other war films are you going to find which flat-out state that cowardice is a better option than sacrificing yourself for your country? Even though The Americanization of Emily is a satire about the military, it uses a very well-written love story as a backdrop to convey a lot of its points. We learn that Emily has already gone through the tragedy of losing her husband, brother and father in the war, but she still believes it was for a worthy cause. As the title implies, Emily’s romance with Charlie helps “Americanize” her and change some of her viewpoints, but the movie leaves it ambiguous about whether or not this is a good thing. The big standout scene in The Americanization of Emily was not even in the original novel and written from scratch by Paddy Chayefsky. It involves Emily bringing Charlie home to meet her mother, who believes that her late family members died heroic deaths fighting for their country. Charlie then delivers a shocking monologue where he states that no death in war is heroic and that cowardice is the best solution. He believes that bringing an end to the glorification of heroism in war is the only thing that can lead to the end of war itself.

It s possible that Chayefsky decided to make this the central message of the film because America was involved in the conflict in Vietnam at the time, a war which would be viewed with far less favourably than World War II. Needless to say, this same message could also be applied to that other controversial war America was involved in this past decade. While this material may sound like bleak, heavy stuff, The Americanization of Emily is still a very funny, enjoyable movie. In spite of the character’s questionable ideals, James Garner still makes Charlie into a very likable, charismatic character and he has terrific chemistry with Julie Andrews. This performance was sandwiched in between Andrews’ iconic turns in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, which is probably why it’s pretty much forgotten today. It’s worth noting, however, that both actors have cited The Americanization of Emily as the personal favourite of their films. The two leads also get strong support from Melvyn Douglas and James Coburn. They both portray generally decent people who have good intentions, yet get so caught up in their ultra-patriotic beliefs that they descend into batshit insanity. The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, who would later reunite with Paddy Chayefsky to direct The Hospital. William Wyler was reportedly the original director on this film, but was removed from the production after attempting to make changes to Chayefsky’s script. That just shows the power and respect that Chayefsky commanded as a writer, since it’s extremely rare for a studio to side with a screenwriter instead of a director. In spite of being almost beloved by those who have actually seen it, The Americanization of Emily is still very underrated and I wouldn’t surprised if the awkward title has kept people away from it.

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