The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Directed by Arthur Hiller

This movie leaves me feeling “conflicted,” as the expression goes. I very much want to like it. I’d like to like it a lot but … I can’t. Not quite.

It’s a good movie but not a great movie and for me its biggest problem is that it is a satire and, as often happens with satires, its message takes precedence over its story and its characters. And that’s where my conflict arises.

I have great sympathy for the message in The Americanization of Emily. It’s a message I would want to communicate if I were communicating a message. But the movie, as a satisfying story, suffers because the message overwhelms it.

James Garner is in the American military as a “dog robber,” a man who basically makes life easy and indulgent for a general, or whomever else he is working for. Garner is a man who cares only for surviving the military and is, as he puts it, a coward.

Julie Andrews is a woman whose path crosses his and she has a sense of honour and the military that, to put it mildly, doesn’t sit well with Garner’s. She and Garner are completely at odds and so, as you can imagine, a romance arises.

This story line — the characters’ story, the romance — is one of the two primary threads in the film. The other, however, is the focus of the satire and it concerns how the adulation of heroes in war is at least partly responsible for the perpetuation of military conflict. Garner’s unheroic character, his cowardly Lt. Comdr. Charles E. Madison, is in complete contrast to the image of the military hero.

These two elements, the romance and the satire, weave back and forth, in and out of one another, but jar as they do so. It almost feels as if two different movies have been intercut and because of this, neither is fully articulated.

Having said that, it’s not that this is a bad movie. It has some very good moments. The movie as a whole, however, isn’t satisfying. It doesn’t cohere well.

One of the movie’s great moments, by the way, actually belongs to the story line I like least, the satire.

The scene between James Garner and Joyce Grenfell as Mrs. Barham, Julie Andrew’s mother in the film, is absolutely wonderful. It brilliantly enunciates the movie’s theme and is heartbreakingly moving as it does so.

Unfortunately, a single scene does not a movie make.

So I’m left with my overall feeling … This is a movie whose motives I feel great sympathy for but whose execution I can’t get on side with. Satire generally only moves me for a few moments. As 90 or 120 minute films, they generally bore me. Here, there’s the germ of a nice romantic story but it never gets off the ground because the filmmakers are more interested in getting their message across.

It’s a good message. Unfortunately, I don’t like messages in my movies. I prefer good stories and interesting characters. In this case, close but no cigar.

(Written in May, 2005 when the DVD was released.)

1 Response

  1. patricia campuzano says:

    I’m trying to fin a film in which James Garner is in the military and supposedly has things people need. Towards the end of the film he tries to avoid going to combat and at the end he is named made a hero because there is a photograph that shows he has been in the war. That’s as much as I heard about the movie and I would like to know the name if by any chance you can figure it out :o)

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