01 August 2008

The Britainization of Charlie

"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."

That's just a sampling of the brilliant dialogue from The Americanization of Emily (1964) a film that features one of the greatest screenplays of all time. It was written by Paddy Chayefsky who also wrote the screenplay for Network (1975).

In the 1950's and early 1960's Hollywood churned out some powerful message films. They were self consciously aware of themselves and the earnest lessons they wanted to teach audiences. Two of the best of these were Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957)and Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958). The targets were easy ones (which in no way diminishes their impact or importance) such as prejudice.

With Mike Nicholas' The Graduate (1967) a new era in American film was ushered in exemplified by such films a Network, and Harold and Maude (1971). These were much more irreverent films whose messages were often subject to interpretation. Moreover during the Seventies darker forces often emerged victorious such as in The Parallax View (1974). In this and other movies likes Three Days of the Condor (1975) the bad guys were quite clearly either members of "the establishment" or extra legal groups beyond reach.

The Americanization of Emily, directed by Arthur Hiller, coming as it did in 1964, was ahead of its time. It was an in-your-face anti-war film, albeit an eloquent one. What it lacked in subtlety and nuance it more than made up for in intelligence and wit.

It's London in the days before the D-Day invasion. James Garner is Navy Lt. Commander Charlie Madison, a dog robber i.e. someone who will obtain whatever his C.O. wants, be it fine food, good cigars or the company of a young lady.
Madison is a self identified coward who sees nothing honorable in self sacrifice, particularly in war. "I'm not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows," he says.

Enter a driver, Emily Barham, played to perfection by a very un-Mary Poppins Julie Andrews. She has lost a father, husband and brother to the war. Emily is as properly British in her attitude towards war and morality as Charlie is not. Charlie and Emily fall madly in love. What we have here is Adam's Rib against the backdrop of the allied invasion.

Their diametrically opposing views allow them to mix passionate love making with passionate verbal sparring. For example:
Emily: You brought me some chocolates.
Charlie: Two boxes of Hershey's.
Emily: Well, that's very American of you, Charlie. You just had to bring along some small token of opulence. Well, I don't want Charlie: Well don't get into a state over it. I thought you liked chocolates.
Emily: I do, but my country's at war and we're doing without chocolates for a while. And I don't want oranges or eggs or soap flakes, either. Don't show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don't Americanize me.

Madison's cushy world of hustling for his boss, an admiral played by Melvyn Douglas, runs into complications. As D-Day approaches the admiral is suffering from a nervous breakdown and wants "the first dead man on Omaha Beach to be a sailor." Moreover, he wants the works of Navy engineers at the invasion on film. Charlie's friend Lt. Commander Bus Cummings, played by James Coburn, eventually decides to go along with the scheme, insisting that Charlie join him. Yes the self preservationist Charlie is expected to hit the beach with the first wave of troops.

In some respects the actions and characters of The Americanization of Emily are just props for Garner's Charlie Madison to deliver his very anti-establishment and anti-war pearls. Very Sixties stuff, really, in advance of what was to come in American cinema and all brilliantly put.

I leave you with one last Madison vignette:
"War isn't hell at all. It's 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."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for a brilliant post about a great movie. The Americanization of Emily has put into words what I have always felt about war but was never able to express myself. I was born in Russia, but grew up in Germany. Now I spend some time in Moscow after several years and I am confronted with "the morality and goodness of war" and "brave" soldiers who died for their country everywhere, especially after 9th May. It scares me and makes me think a lot about this movie.

Keep up the great work! I read your blog every day.