The Americanization of Emily (1964) is a wonderfully satirical, dark comedy about a “dog robber” in the US Navy serving during WWII. Starring James Garner as Charlie, a self-proclaimed coward, the film tells the story of this unscrupulous officer who prefers to avoid heroism in lieu of self-preservation.
Although deemed unpatriotic by some critics, The Americanization of Emily–based on the novel by William Bradford Huie–actually satirizes the glamorization of war rather than the necessity for war itself. Many turned down the offer to direct the film on account of its controversial nature, before Arthur Hiller stepped in. Aside from the negative criticism regarding the unpatriotic aspect of the film, it was also deemed as inappropriate due to the sexual exploits of the Naval officers. Charlie’s job as a “dog robber” is described in the beginning of the film as such:
“In World War II, few men served their countries more ably than a small group of unheralded heroes known as ‘The Dog Robbers.’ A ‘Dog-Robber’ is the personal attendant of a general or admiral and his job is to keep his general or admiral well-clothed, well-fed, and well-loved during the battle.”
Charlie is said to be one of the world’s best “dog robbers,” as he is able to obtain anything Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) requests through either bribery or intimidation. He also takes good care of his wartime buddy “Bus” Cummings (James Coburn) by supplying him with beautiful women (indeed, one of the main sources of humor in the otherwise dark and serious subject matter of the film is found in Charlie’s continuous disruptions of his buddy’s “adult” escapades).
Emily (Julie Andrews), a war widow, meets Charlie when she is assigned as his driver, and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind about her disapproval of the American officers’ behavior during a time of conflict. When he has the car loaded full of luxury items, she speaks harshly to him: “You Americans are really enjoying this war, aren’t you? Most English families haven’t seen that many oranges or eggs in years, but it’s just one big Shriner’s convention to you Yanks, isn’t it?”
Charlie thinks that her spirit would make her an interesting addition to the admiral’s dinner party and bridge game, which generally includes many beautiful females as “companions” for the higher ranking officers. She denies his request, understanding full well what her attendance would require. When Charlie calls her a prig, she seems genuinely upset. She explains to her friend, “Well, the fact is, I’m anything but. I’m grotesquely sentimental. I fall in love at the drop of a hat. That’s why I gave up hospital driving. All those men moaning in the back of the ambulance. Especially the lot from Africa. I used to read to them in my off-hours. When they were healed and were sent back to the front, they’d come looking for me to spend their last nights of leave with them. Little hotel rooms. Bed and breakfast for a guinea. I paid the guinea myself more often than not. But I couldn’t say no to them, could I? I’d just lost my husband, and I was overwhelmed with tenderness for all dying men.”
Charlie and Emily begin a romantic relationship when he discovers her waiting for him in his room after the party. She explains to him that his most attractive quality is his cowardice. After losing a brother, husband, and father in the war, she doesn’t want to suffer another loss. Since Charlie isn’t interested in being a hero at war, she assumes he is a safe choice for a lover.
Unfortunately, soon after they fall in love, Charlie is ordered to attend the front lines on D-Day in order to make a film highlighting the virtues of the American Navy. He immediately protests to the admiral. The admiral is said to have suffered a “cracking up,” though, and is insistent upon Charlie being present for the making of the film. Since his wife’s death a year prior, the admiral has been acting strangely and having episodes of panic attacks. Unable to reason with him, Charlie and Bus are sent to the front lines of the action on the beaches of Normandy.
James Garner, who sadly passed away last week at the age of eighty-six, long referred to The Americanization of Emily as his favorite of all the films he made during his long career in Hollywood. And it’s little wonder, because he gives a remarkable performance in the movie. Garner shines as a not-so-heroic sailor who just wants to get out of the war alive. He is virtually flawless, transforming with deceptive ease from crude, immoral, suave dog robber, to soul-stricken lover, to terrified soldier in fear of death on the beach of Normandy. His chemistry with Andrews is quite effective, too, and they make a convincing onscreen pair (one that they would revisit quite successfully with 1982’s Victor/Victoria).
The Americanization of Emily is now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive. The disc contains several extras, including a short documentary on the making of the beach scene on D-Day. According to this featurette, the D-Day scene runs three minutes on the screen, but it took four months of preparations, a week of shooting, and a quarter of a million dollars to film. The Blu-ray also features commentary by the film’s director, Hiller. This commentary is somewhat different from others I’ve viewed before, as Hiller becomes emotionally distraught when discussing the untimely passing of the film’s screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, whom Hiller refers to as “the only genius I’ve ever worked with.”
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of The Americanization of Emily for the purposes of this review.