"This is a story of the absurdities of war ... and the uncertainties of love."
The “tagline” above comes from the theatrical trailer on the DVD, which does a very reasonable job of presenting the basic storyline for the film. Can a romantic comedy about war succeed as a movie? Oh, yes! This one does, in spades. Many factors play a part in making this a great film. The movie has a magnificent cast, even to the selection of the “nameless broads” (the appellation used in the movie's credits). Arthur Hiller as director also shines. The elements were brought together by producer Martin Ransohoff, who has many other gems in his filmography. The novel on which the film was based has a good reputation. However, I believe the screenplay makes this one of the best films about love and war ever made. That key element was written by Paddy Chayefsky, three time winner of the Oscar for Best Screenplay. However, this film – far too controversial for the Academy of its time – received Oscar nominations only for its sets and black and white cinematography.
The movie opens in England with the airport arrival of a bunch of American naval officers: Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) and his naval coterie. “Dog robber” Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison (James Garner) and adjutant Lt. Cmdr. 'Bus' Cummings (James Coburn) accompany the Admiral. A fleet of chauffeured cars meet the Americans at the airport. Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), Charlie Madison's British driver, seems taken aback by his personal style but says little. After Charlie signs off so she can leave he says good bye to Emily by patting her behind, as he has done to several uniformed women prior. She responds by slapping him, which produces a grin on his face as she drives off.
In Charlie's quarters, while the camera pans around a “trove” best described as “swag” – food, liquor, chocolates, perfume and other rarities during wartime – words roll up the screen giving back story on “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.” A “dog robber” might be called a glorified procurer. As a “dog robber,” Charlie has no match. Admiral Jessup sets the best table in the European theater of the war.
'Bus' passes to Charlie an assignment for the evening from Adm. Jessup. The Admiral intends to throw a party. One of the attendees, a General, plays bridge and “partners” will be needed. Charlie confirms with Bus that the General likes redheads and heads to the motor pool. At the motor pool he meets the blonde Sheila (Liz Fraser) and asks her if she can be a redhead by 5:30 PM. She asks if she must drive or dress. Charlie responds that she'll need to dress. Sheila claims she needs a new dress. Charlie offers to supply her with one from the “swag” in his quarters at lunchtime. Though Charlie asks for Sheila as his driver, she can't. Instead Emily gets the driving assignment and takes him to a meeting with the local naval supply officer. After Emily gives him some of her opinions on Yanks in the war effort, she drives him back to his quarters where Sheila gets her new dress.
Charlie needs another bridge player and asks Sheila about another friend, but that friend has married. Charlie asks Emily to join Admiral Jessup's party for “just dinner and bridge, nothing else” but she refuses. Charlie tells Emily she's “something of a prig.” Later, back at the motor pool, Emily asks Sheila if she's thought a prig. Sheila responds, “Oh Lord, yes, Love.” As a counter to Sheila's opinion, Emily mentions her experiences with soldiers after her husband was killed at Tobruk. Sheila tells Emily what good parties Charlie throws and tells her she should come.
Emily changes her mind about the party and decides to accept Charlie's invitation. She goes to his quarters to tell him and encounters his collection of “swag” what Sheila called the “swankiest shop in town.” After Emily again expresses some disdain for Americans, Charlie responds: "You American haters bore me to tears Miss Barham. ... 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, Miss Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Miss 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."
While Gen. William Hallerton (Paul Newlan) and Adm. Jessup discuss military politics, Emily and Charlie join them at the bridge table. Emily has a fine evening at the dinner party and when apparently leaving tells Charlie to ask her again. After the overtired Admiral takes leave of the party, his “dog robber” handles the chore of saying good bye to the guests. Charlie also sees to Adm. Jessup who acts strangely and out of character. After Charlie leaves the Admiral to his bath and heads to his bedroom he finds Emily waiting. While they “get acquainted” the Admiral opens the door and announces “The first dead man on Omaha beach must be a sailor.” He's obviously not himself, but that idea becomes fixed in his troubled mind and plays out through the rest of the film.
This matchless movie uses WWII to show the absurdity of war. Like Catch-22 (Joseph Heller's brilliant novel), The Americanization of Emily attacks “the good war.” Its hero, Charlie Madison, in some ways seems a bit like Catch-22's Lt. Milo Minderbinder, though “dog robber” Charlie operates more in line with standard military practice than Milo. In addition, the romantic aspects that come with Emily have no true parallel in Catch-22. Another great antiwar comedy, Dr. Strangelove also lacks much romantic interest and focuses instead on black satire. However, like Dr. Strangelove, The Americanization of Emily features Keenan Wynn in a small but important portrayal.
In 1964, the presence of any of the major actors in this film: Garner, Andrews, Douglas and Coburn signaled a movie that deserved attention. However, the presence of all of them demands notice. Still, the screenplay contributes most to making this movie a classic. For this review I've only included one quote from Charlie Madison, but almost anything Charlie says to Emily or her mother (Joyce Grenfell) makes for quotable material. 'Bus' Cummings and several other smaller jingoistic characters perform self-parodies. Although not as outrageous as Catch-22 or as dark as Dr. Strangelove, The Americanization of Emily holds its own with these other classic antiwar comedy films. It may even outshine them. For not only does it show the absurdity of war, but it also celebrates life.