When we think of Julie Andrews it's difficult not to think of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Which is a little unfair - her career has been far more varied than that and includes some rather interesting films. Unluckily for her, her most interesting movies featuring her most impressive acting performances (movies like Darling Lili) haven’t always been her biggest hits. One of her best is The Americanization of Emily, a quirky and very cynical anti-war comedy romance from 1964.
Julie Andrews is Emily, who works as a driver for the armed forces in World War 2. She used to work as a hospital driver but had to give it up - she always felt sorry for the men about to be sent back to the front and she always ended up sleeping with them. And they invariably ended up getting killed. That’s why she finds Lieutenant Commander Charles Madison (James Garner) so attractive. He’s a dog-robber - a personal assistant to an important American admiral. He’s never been anywhere near the front lines, and he has a talent for avoiding even the merest hint of personal danger. For Charlie the war is one big party - fine food, beautiful women and luxury hotels. There’s no chance Charlie is going to break Emily’s heart by getting himself killed, so she can hardly wait to get him into bed with her.
But fate has an unexpected fate in store for Charlie. His boss, Admiral Jessup, apart from being quite insane, sees the war not so much as a war as a PR opportunity for the Navy. And an opportunity to strike at the real enemy. The real enemy being of course the goddamned Army. The Army wants to make the European theatre of operations an army show, but Admiral Jessup has a plan. The first man killed on D-Day is going to be a sailor. The admiral is going to make sure of it. And he’s not only going to be a sailor, he’s going to be filmed getting killed. And Charlie and his buddy and fellow dog-robber Lieutenant Commander Paul “Bus” Cummings (James Coburn) find themselves assigned to the project of making the film. The fact that neither of them knows the first thing about movie-making isn’t the sort of detail to trouble the military mind.
Paddy Chayefsky’s script is delightfully cynical and witty, a brilliant mix of black comedy and very offbeat romance. The affair between Emily and Charlie starts out as simply recreational sex, but Emily has never been able to stop herself falling in love. Emily believes in all sorts of old-fashioned English virtues like duty and self-sacrifice, but gradually realises they’ve never brought her anything but misery and the dishonest joys and self-indulgent pleasures of martyrdom. Her mother suffers from the same syndrome. Charlie’s unashamed cowardice makes her appreciate, for the first time, that perhaps life is better and more worthy of celebration than death.
Julie Andrews pulls off a difficult and complex part exceptionally well. She has to combine all kinds of apparently contradictory emotions and till make her character believable, and she succeeds. She also has to make a woman with a strong streak of virtue and self-righteousness into a likeable and sympathetic character, and this she also does very successfully. James Garner makes Charlie one of the most admirable cowards in movie history. He’s a coward, but he’s a coward with principles. His hatred of war and of the exaltation of war that allows it to happen is perfectly sincere, and his argument that it isn’t the generals and politicians who make war possible but the ordinary people who celebrate the courage and self-sacrifice involved in war is unexpectedly thought-provoking. James Coburn is fun as Bus, and Melvyn Douglas is both amusing and disturbing as the crazed Admiral Jessup.
I won’t give away any hints about the ending other than to say that it works perfectly and it neatly avoids the pitfalls that could so easily have brought this movie to grief.
Anti-war movies always run the risk of making war too entertaining and of celebrating the very virtues that encourage war, but this is one of the very few anti-war movies that doesn’t fall into that trap. It remains deliciously and unrepentantly cynical throughout, and it has the courage to maintain its mockery of the military virtues right to the end. It also manages to be a movie that comes down very firmly on the side of life, and of love. This is a truly superb movie, and I recommend it very very highly.