Most movies are the undiluted vision of their director; a visual artist’s personal imprint that becomes more apparent upon repeat viewings of their body of work. On occasion, however, the focus has shifted from director to producer, perhaps nowhere more distinctly than in those movies made by David O. Selznick, so clearly and obviously reflecting his thoughts, his morality and his ideals; the director assigned to helm these productions, a mere minion, expected to fulfill Selznick’s edicts. Rarely, however, in the history of American cinema has the writer been given such consideration, leeway, or even accolades as a movie’s acknowledged auteur; unless, of course, he also happens to be its director, as say, a Joseph L. Mankiewicz or Preston Sturges. Hence, The Americanizaton of Emily (1964) is all the more extraordinary and unique. For although the movie is amply realized by its director, Arthur Hiller, the essence, nee – the spirit - of the piece is undeniably dictated by screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky’s erudite prose. William Bradford Huie’s novel defines ‘Americanization’ as a sort of faux prostitution; English girls trading sexual favors to the Yanks in order to acquire stylish clothes, perfumes, and, lavish outings to fashionable parties and nightclubs; all of it ultimately culminating in midnight rendezvous inside the swankier suites of London hotels; the Savoy, Dorchester or Claridge’s.
In reconstituting this rather seedy premise, Paddy Chayefsky has superficially gleaned only Huie’s basic premise and characters. Instead, he has taken an almost perverse and very esoteric approach to this material; the tale of an unrepentant coward, slick and devilishly handsome dog-robber, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison (James Garner) and the priggish English widow, Emily Barham (Julie Andrews) he comes to seduce and eventually care for, becomes a mere platform on which Chayefsky grafts an even more sublime social commentary about the ever-lasting psychological perils of war; its deification of heroes and heroism as insidious to the perpetuation of mankind’s self-destruction as any misperceived notions of valor. The genius in Chayefsky’s writing is that it never come across as a weighty tome - stagnated or preachy - but miraculously retains a self-reflexive quality, easily disseminated to the audience with razor-backed honesty. Chayefsky’s characters are far more astute, articulate and able to philosophize and debate a point of interest, plumbing it to fascinating depths. And yet none of these characters ever slips into overbearing academia or tedium in their quest for the truth. Many authors and playwrights have walked this tightrope. Maxwell Anderson immediately comes to mind. But few have been more stealthily secure in their clever-clever expositions than Paddy Chayefsky. The true artistry in his exercise becomes educational almost by accident. The lesson is taught, but Chayefsky is never obviously the teacher. Indeed, Chayefsky once clarified in an interview that “our purpose is to entertain. We fill up their leisure. If we also happen to give the audience something to think about then we have achieved what is called artistry…and that’s gravy. That’s bonus.”
In retrospect, The Americanization of Emily remains an embarrassment of such ‘bonuses’; an unexpected melodrama – deadly serious at its core, yet wrapped inside an anti-war social critique approached with even more wicked distraction by way of a thoroughly scathing romantic comedy. Chayevsky’s wit, his superior intellect and his ability to expound such lofty platitudes while making them seem more casual conversation, fit for the salon or a playful parlor game between old friends or lovers; this is the kernel of genius of his artistry. For although the characters that populate The Americanization of Emily deconstruct and articulate exceptionally well thought out arguments in order to illustrate both the pro and con, and, with Chayefsky’s own opinion clearly on the side of restraint, though arguably, never appeasement, these nuggets of morality and humanity never unhinge the discussion into wordy byplay. Instead, we are compelled to listen to his almost rhapsodic theorizing; the conflict between man and woman inventively plied and exploited as a counterpoint to the warring of nations; the solemnity in the art of mechanized warfare made to reflect this more intimate contest.
The term ‘highbrow’ is often incorrectly referenced to mark this chasm between the common collective understanding (a.k.a. popular opinion) and pure intellectual thought (nee, debate). But Chayefsky’s prose manage the seemingly impossible; to transfix his audience with deeper ideas and ideals, their interpretation seeming effortlessly more easily digestible. Chayefsky always says what he means and means exactly what he says. Such personalization and personification of the larger issues at stake, rendered down to their most basic equation – two people in love – never talks down to the audience; the eloquence loftier and more resilient than the conflict itself and food for thought once the houselights have come up. At the time of its release, The Americanization of Emily was neither well-received nor critically acclaimed; if for nothing else, then for Julie Andrews’ miraculous departure from squeaky-clean and blissfully virginal nuns and nannies. As the title character, Andrews is given the exceptionally plum role of a widow who, having lost her husband at Tobruk, and briefly succumbed to the madness of casual liaisons with many men to drown her sorrow, has somehow managed to slip into a sexual reformation, morphing into a rather priggish spinster to whom all men – though particularly American soldiers - now seem an anathema to her newfound moralizing sense of self. Emily’s resolve is repeatedly tested by her obvious and growing attraction to Charlie Madison; his chipping away at her faux ‘high-minded principles with amorous contempt, impeding her ability merely to love and be loved in return.
Yet Charlie begins both his admonishment and his assessment of Emily thus, with a very real condemnation of the war itself: “You American haters bore me to tears. I've dealt with Europeans all my life…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 of the 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 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town.”
This, of course, has the opposite effect intended. For only a few hours later, Charlie will discover Emily patiently waiting in his bedroom to be served and serviced. The burgeoning affair gets off to a very rocky start and intermittently progresses, while Chayefsky’s narrative briefly entertains the approaching D-Day invasion on the windswept and very bloody beaches of Normandy. The premise is more necessarily complicated by Emily’s mum (the sublime, Joyce Grenfell); who has slipped a cog after the brutal death of both her husband, killed in the blitz, and son – one of many casualties in the war; choosing to live her days in an indeterminate past where each is still very much alive and apt to come home at any moment.
Emily encourages Charlie to play along with this emotionless charade, and briefly, he does exactly as she wishes, before delving into yet another tirade about the futility of war. The effect of his admonishment is not immediately felt, for Chayefsky has gilded the lily of his social critique in a wicked patina of glib repartee; something of a mild amusement for both mother and daughter. “War isn't hell at all,” Charlie tells Mrs. Barham, “It is 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 critique is both amusing yet frank. But the playful mood of this tea time garden party quickly sours when Charlie permits himself the luxury to criticize Emily’s mother for her nascent pride that continues to hold the balance of her incredible sorrow and imminent joys in a perpetual state of limbo. “I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham,” Charlie tells her plainly, “It’s always the generals with the bloodiest war records who shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parade. We shall never win wars by blaming them on ministers and generals or war-mongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weed like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting the sacrifice.”
“My brother died at Anzio; an everyday soldier’s death – no special heroism involved. They buried whatever pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud. You see, now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. It may be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars…but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave? I don’t think I was rude or unkind before, do you, Mrs. Barham?” In fact, Charlie has paid the widow Barham a great kindness; one that stirs her back to reality and its bitter thrashings of truth, at last favored over the great lie.
The other narrative thread as yet not discussed involves Charlie’s superior officer, Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) who, after suffering a queer breakdown, insists the first dead American on Omaha Beach must be a sailor. Jessup’s declaration is rather startling and, in fact, paid very little mind by Charlie or his fellow officers, Lt. Cmdr. Paul 'Bus' Cummings (James Coburn) or Admiral Thomas Healy (Edward Binns). Nevertheless, the die has been cast. In the wake of Jessup’s reoccurring departures from reality, Bus falls victim to the valorization of war, establishing Jessup’s camera corp. of one – Charlie – who will document the invasion for posterity’s sake and very likely be killed in his efforts. Bus assures Charlie the likelihood of invasion is virtually slim to nonexistent; a comfort Charlie confides to Emily who has by now fallen madly in love with him but cannot bring herself to abide his cowardice. Or perhaps the real disillusionment is yet to follow.
For as Charlie astutely points out during their farewell in a torrential downpour at the airport, “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. The fact is I’m a coward. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t. You’re the most terrified woman I’ve ever met. You’re even scared to get married.”
“Oh sure, you married him three days before he went to Africa. Thank God he never came back. You’re forever falling in love with men on their last nights of furlough. That’s about the limit of your commitments – a night, a day, a month. You prefer lovers to husbands, hotels to a home. You’d rather grieve than live. Come off it Emily. The only immoral thing you have against me is that I’m alive. Well, you’re a good woman. You’ve done the morally right thing. God save us all from people who do the morally right thing. It’s the rest of us who get broken in half. You’re a bitch.”
Charlie flies off, feeling secure he and Bus will have missed their connecting flight and therefore be too late to engage in the D-Day invasion. Regrettably, fate has dealt a more cruel hand. For the ill winds and rain pelting Emily and Charlie’s during their brittle farewell have also delayed the Allied plans for invasion by a full day, providing more than ample time for Charlie and Bus to hit the beach running. Charlie refuses to comply and is physically dragged to the beach and held there at gunpoint by Bus, now seemingly having succumbed to Jessup’s delusions of grandeur. Realizing what a fool she has been, Emily is powerless to tell Charlie how she really feels; she wants the things he wants – though chiefly, to belong to a man who can be more than a distant and deified memory, resting comfortably snug in a silver frame on her mantel piece. Thankfully, Charlie survives his ordeal. He is mildly wounded and taken to be patched up, finding Emily waiting for him on the other side; all beguilement with the war and its heroes set aside. Charlie is the only man for Emily now – his own blunder into heroism a confirmation of his earlier edict: that through cowardice mankind shall be saved.
The Americanization of Emily is an extraordinary movie about war and the strange bedfellows it breeds. While other anti-war movies take themselves and their message far too seriously, Paddy Chayefsky’s critique places tongue firmly in cheek and, as a result, makes a far more prophetic statement about valor through irony than perhaps would ever be possible in a more grimly mounted melodrama. Both Julie Andrews and James Garner give decisive performances in their respective careers; each going largely unnoticed at the time of the film’s release. Arguably, The Americanization of Emily plays far better today as a sobering social critique; the evolution of our own present cultural cynicism more in tune with Chayefsky’s brutally funny situations and very acidic wit. There are too few comedies about the advent of global conflict, perhaps because to poke fun at its absurdities and willful chaos seems to disgrace the very nature of valor for which only families that have lost a loved one to war can fully comprehend. Yet the purpose of Chayefsky’s critique is neither to insult nor diminish the impact of that loss of life or even to callously dismiss and make light of bravery; but rather to point to the outcome – the loss itself – as a wholly unnecessary byproduct of a very flawed human endeavor; namely- the miserably misguided ambitions of war.
While that ‘other dark comedy’ about conflict - M*A*S*H – plays as grand farce in the face of imminent peril, a sort of bastardization of wartime precepts, offering a total escape from the grimness, The Americanization of Emily is well-grounded with an overriding sense of doom and languor dangling over the heads of our darling Em’ and her ne’er do well lover. Chayefsky neither shies away nor exorcises the demons that lay beneath his very buoyant and frequently extremely funny social critique: an exceptional gift to American cinema and one for which Paddy Chayefsky’s contributions were virtually all but overlooked at the time. But The Americanization of Emily is bar none a superior example of ‘entertainment’ meets ‘the message picture’: an amalgam by design, it tells a good story, but ultimately, teaches us so very much more.
Here is a Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive to get very excited about. I only have one genuine complaint and one minor quibble with this Blu-ray. First, the complaint; that 'Emily's' hi-def debut wasn’t given the proper fanfare. Everyone should be aware this film is out in hi-def and be ready to snatch it up in a heartbeat. This is a near ‘reference quality’ disc, beautifully showcasing Philip Lathrop's Oscar-nominated cinematography. Prepare to be impressed. The gray scale exhibits superb tonality; blacks - deep and solid; grays and whites finely allocated with subtle shadings that bring even the minutest details in hair, clothing and faces to life as never before. An accurately rendered pattern of natural grain exists. Now, for the quibble: the brief (very sporadic) intrusion of video noise. It just comes and goes, seemingly at random, not terribly distracting but present nonetheless. Again, its’ very minor and does not intrude – much – on this otherwise fantastic film-like presentation. The movie’s inserts of actual stock footage are much softer in focus and grainer – as they have been shot under less than perfectly controlled conditions – nee, reality. They look about as good as they ever have or ever will, but they do not align themselves with the rest of the image quality. This is, of course, as it should be.
The Americanization of Emily sports a lossless DTS 2.0 mono track which remains something of a curiosity, given that the movie is listed as originally being released in both mono and stereo. The track herein has perceptible stereo separation in Johnny Mandel’s score. Dialogue and most effects are center channel based, but I also detected minor separation in the left and right channels, particularly during the sequence where Emily and Charlie say their bitter farewells in the pouring rain. As before we get Arthur Hiller’s audio commentary; incorrectly advertises as featuring Drew Casper on the DVD back jacket, but correctly advertised as Hiller on the Blu-ray. Bottom line: The Americanization of Emily comes very highly recommended. It deserves to be seen and this Blu-ray presentation is definitely the way to see it!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)