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In the early 1940s, the silver screen's funnymen enlisted to help drum up support for the ongoing Second World War. Vehicles starring everyone from Abbott & Costello ( Buck Privates) to Laurel & Hardy ( Air Raid Wardens) showed that even these sowers of comedic chaos stood for something. But while these films featured such bumblers in action, it was never at the expense of the Armed Forces, the reason being that it's kind of hard to poke fun at a period in history that many say is the last "good" war ever waged. Even something as subversive as 1964's The Americanization of Emily ends up conceding that it's a little unfair to focus solely on the tragedy surrounding the conflict and say nothing of the good that it ultimately accomplished. But that doesn't mean it can't satirize the image of war with gleeful fervor, exposing how those in the highest positions of power are some of the biggest wimps of all. The Americanization of Emily is very wise and very funny, a film that offers a funny and poignant view of its subject that feels more human than the most well-intentioned hunk of propaganda.

The Americanization of Emily
Throughout World War II, men known as "dog-robbers" worked tirelessly behind the scenes. These officers were the personal assistants of generals and admirals alike, placed in charge of ensuring that their superiors were well-stocked in the finest liquor, food, and women that they could sweet-talk into their possession. Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison (James Garner) is the king of the dog-robbers, a bona fide wheeler-dealer who can score his boss, Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), just about anything he desires. Charlie is also an admitted coward, having had enough of combat and signed up for his current job to avoid the battlefield at all costs. His attitude hasn't won him any favors with Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a motor pool driver and a woman who's lost just about her entire family to war. But Charlie still represents the most stability she's known in a long time, and despite a chilly first encounter, the two gradually fall in love. However, the safety that Charlie's worked so hard to achieve is threatened when Jessup goes on a mental vacation and orders him on a mission that may land him on the front lines of the impending D-Day invasion.

As director Arthur Hiller ( Silver Streak) notes on the film's commentary track, The Americanization of Emily isn't against war; its stance prefers to take to task the glorification of war. Rather than lecture about how terrible combat is and regard those with the slightest opposing viewpoint with smug superiority, the picture just recognizes that nothing in this world is strictly black and white, least of all the military. Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay is critical but fair, applying a coating of exaggeration to the story that was controversial at the time (several directors reportedly passed on the project after deeming it un-American) but plays out quaintly nowadays. Both he and Hiller resist the urge to make a cartoon out of any character, maintaining a sense of compassion and understanding no matter what absurd situation is playing out before us. Even Jessup's edicts that the first soldier to die on Omaha Beach must be a sailor for the sake of good PR come from the character's own fears of the Navy being scrapped, just one instance of the gallows humor in which the film frequently indulges. Comedy and drama co-exist splendidly here, with a minimum of contrivances experienced as Hiller maneuvers the story from tone to tone over the course of the picture.

The Americanization of Emily
The Americanization of Emily's success lies in how grounded it keeps itself, how both its satire and its sentiment remain within the realm of possibility. There's a well-roundedness here that other movies can only strive for, an understanding that enables us to acknowledge the characters' many faults but still pull for them regardless. Upon their introductions, Garner's Charlie is an unrelenting cad -- playfully smacking a multitude of ladies' rear ends throughout the opening credits -- while Andrews plays Emily as a humorless prig scolding him for being lighthearted whilst there's a war on. Of course, each of their guards become lowered as they grow closer to one another, with Emily revealing her reasons for remaining so emotionally closed-up and Charlie, in an especially resonant scene, explains why he sees the deification of those who die in battle as a problem. An incredible balance is written into each character, although it's through the pitch-perfect acting on display that they truly come alive. Garner is ideal as a smooth smoothie who's full to the brim with world-weary snark, and Andrews is, as always, an absolute treat as the no-nonsense Emily, who's more hurt inside than she cares to admit. Douglas effortlessly alternates between eliciting chuckles and sympathy as the batty Admiral Jessup, and James Coburn is just a plain old hoot as Charlie's womanizing best friend/fellow dog-robber.

The Americanization of Emily
Video
The Americanization of Emily makes its Blu-ray debut through the Warner Archive Collection, with a 1080p transfer. It comes presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, carried over from its DVD release in 2005. How much the movie benefits from an HD upgrade, however, is a matter of debate. Don't get me wrong, Emily looks absolutely fine; considering how previous Warner Archive Blu releases like Billy Rose's Jumbo and Gypsy had plenty of colors to boldly enhance, this picture's more modest, black-and-white presentation holds up well. But certain nighttime scenes can look a little on the murky side, the occasional cuts to stock footage are very obvious, and it's pretty clear to spot which sections were taken from a print that was in fairly rough shape. The overall feature is consistently crisp enough to enjoy, though.

Audio
The Americanization of Emily boasts a Dolby Digital English 2.0 Stereo audio track. Johnny Mandel's sometimes playful, sometimes swoony score effectively underlines the picture without becoming overpowering. Despite the lack of wartime action for the vast majority of the film, the actors' voices aren't cranked up to compensate, and the living room-rattling booms we encounter as the story heads to Omaha Beach for the climax reflects Charlie's own disorientation as he experiences the war firsthand. English subtitles are also provided.

The Americanization of Emily
Extras
  • Director Arthur Hiller presides over a feature-length audio commentary track. A good variety of stories and anecdotes are shared about a production that by all accounts seemed to go by smoothly. Hiller reminisces about the pleasures of collaborating with writer Paddy Chayefsky ("The only genius I've ever worked with."), casting changes (James Garner was originally slated for the James Coburn role), and how the film debuted to a warm reception that's only increased over the years. While Hiller may not seem like the liveliest of storytellers, his affection for the movie is quite obvious, and he's never without some interesting tidbits about its creation to share.
  • Action on the Beach (6:02), a featurette profiling the filming of The Americanization of Emily's D-Day invasion scene on a California beach. An impressive amount of time, money, and resources went into putting together a sequence that ended up lasting only a couple minutes, but from how authentically it appeared on screen, not a dime went to waste.
  • The theatrical trailer (2:41), which I'm surprised plays up the film's satirical angle much more than the romantic one -- like, a lot more, as the one snippet of a dramatic confrontation between Garner and Julie Andrews that it features is still one in which the former is making smart-alecky remarks.


The Americanization of Emily
Overall
Though it retains a touch of the "boys club" mentality that makes Robert Altman's MASH a little hard to stomach these days, The Americanization of Emily is in many ways a more successful military satire. It's not as blunt or bleak, that's for sure, but that it plays off of the complicated feelings war leaves with a lot of folks allows it to be more observant than something steeped in weighing the pros over the cons, or vice versa. Charming and sad, romantic and tragic, The Americanization of Emily remains as thoughtful today as it was fifty years ago.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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