Through cowardice, we shall all be saved: “The Americanization of Emily” (1964)


By Scott Ross

By 1964, Paddy Chayefsky had been present on the American movie screen for some time, particularly through adaptations of his more noted television dramas (Marty in 1955, The Catered Affair in ’56, The Bachelor Party in ’57) and stage plays (Middle of the Night, 1959) and via a 1958 original, The Goddess starring Kim Stanley as a thinly-disguised Monroe figure. These titles largely reflected the “little man” playwright niche into which Chayefsky had been crammed — much as Tennessee Williams represented, to those without perceptive imagination and who needed a quick hook on which to hang a complicated, poetic dramatist, Sex and Southern Gothic. Beginning with The Tenth Man in 1959 and Gideon in 1961, however, Chayefsky’s stage work took on greater theatricality and a deeper, darker and more allegorical word-richness.

The playwright became drunk with language, discovering a gift for rhetoric unique among American dramatists, and pretty much un-mined since his death by anyone other than Tony Kushner. In transliterating William Bradford Huie’s short novel The Americanization of Emily to the screen, this “new” Chayefsky found his first great, personal expression in a movie.

I’m not a believer, as so many in Hollywood (and among the general reading public, shrunken and misshapen as it has become) that a novel is, somehow, “incomplete” until it has been made into a film. Great literature, with a few noteworthy exceptions (To Kill a Mockingbird; Enemies, a love story; Maurice) seldom translates to great film. One is far better off approaching second- or even third-rate prose, and re-imagining its essentials for the screen than attempting to translate great narrative prose to a dramatic medium. And while Huie at his considerable best was a fine, if by now largely forgotten, stylist, the film Emily trumps the novel Emily in nearly every way.

Where Huie is largely serious, Chayefsky injects a comic-satiric tone. His chief device, which both burnishes the narrative and has conferred on the film much of its latter-day cult status, is in making his male lead, Charlie Madison, an advocate of cowardice. In the midst of war — perhaps especially a “good” one like World War II — it’s a bracing bit of sanity. It’s also one of the reasons the movie’s lead, James Garner, regards The Americanization of Emily as his favorite among his own films. (His co-star, Julie Andrews, shares Garner’s feelings.) That insistence, both by Charlie and by Chayefsky, on the nobility of the coward may have contributed to the movie’s relative failure at the domestic box-office. (It didn’t even rate a review in the New York Times.) Another factor may have been that Emily was released after Mary Poppins; few who loved that Disney musical were quite ready for a more “earthy” (and non-musical) Andrews.

Chayefsky also concocted the plot’s farcical angle, which quickly takes first a desperate, then a seemingly tragic, turn as Melvyn Douglas’ otherwise meritorious Admiral, suffering a sort of breakdown, decrees that “the first dead man on Omaha beach must be a sailor”… and orders Charlie to film the event.

Emily was shot well, if without any great distinction, by the workmanlike Arthur Hiller. It was, however, marvelously scored by Johnny Mandel, and featured a superb supporting cast including the always admirable Douglas along with James Coburn, Keenan Wynn, William Windom, Judy Carne, Alan Sues and the great British monologist Joyce Grenfell, beautifully cast as Andrews’ “dotty,” grieving mother.

It’s in Charlie’s first meeting with Mrs. Barham that Chayefsky scores his greatest rhetorical coup — and his star’s undying gratitude — as Garner delivers, with astonishingly varied understatement, one of the truly great monologues in American movies. It ought to be carved in stone somewhere, and memorized by every service-aged adolescent, and is well worth reproducing here, more or less in full:

I discovered I was a coward. That’s my new religion. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes wars. 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 10,000,000 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…

I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.

We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio… An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…

Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September… May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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