Tuesday, March 29, 2016

OVP: The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Film: The Americanization of Emily (1964)
Stars: James Garner, Julie Andrews, Melvyn Douglas, James Coburn, Joyce Grenfell
Director: Arthur Hiller
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Cinematography, Art Direction)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

For years, nestled between her two absolute classics Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, has been the movie that Julie Andrews proclaimed was her absolute favorite of all of her pictures, The Americanization of Emily.  The film, a hit back in its day but which has faded quite a bit from public consciousness compared to Andrews' two other squeaky clean family films, is a shockingly political and progressive film for 1964, with a pacifist viewpoint particularly from Garner's character.  Watching the classic western star play what many at the time (and even today) would have considered a coward is a truly interesting thing to view, and makes Americanization more than just a curiosity.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Julie Andrews as Emily, a widow who is working in the war effort in World War II, and who has taken a dislike toward her employers, the recently arrived Americans, led by Lt. Commander Charlie Madison (Garner).  Emily is tired of war, and of losing men she loves in it (her husband, brother, and father have all died in war), and when it turns out that Charlie is someone who will never see the frontlines and is a man who seems to value personal survival more than bravery, she falls in love with him as he appears to be a safe option.  As this is a Hollywood movie, we of course soon find that Charlie will need to be on the main front, as part of a documentary production crew, as his commanding officer (Douglas) has gone a bit mad and is insistent that the first man killed at Omaha Beach be a sailor so that the Navy can get some solid press over the Air Force and the Army.  This results in Charlie nearly dying at Omaha Beach at the hands of his friend Bus (Coburn) who has gone insane with trying to ensure that a sailor dies, and the world thus thinks Charlie is dead, making him a hero and having Emily believe she lost another man to war.  The film ends in the most traditional of fashions, with Charlie deciding to accept his heroism rather than expose the silliness of his death, and living a long and happy life with Emily.

The film sounds relatively routine from most standpoints, of course.  We have a reluctant soldier driven to the frontlines, romanced by a beautiful woman who initially dislikes him, and in the end doing what is best for his country.  However, the film doesn't really play by those rules and it's actually quite shocking the ways that the picture takes on an anti-war attitude, particularly on the eve of the Vietnam Conflict.  After all, World War II is not one of the wars we typically identify as a war that people disagreed with entering.  In fact, almost every film about the war celebrates heroism and the dire needs to get into the battle for the sake of humanity.  The idea that someone could be against it is appalling, but it's worth noting that such a thing did exist.  People like Rep. Jeanette Rankin (who was threatened and forced into retirement for her vote) stood against the United States entering World War II, and the film is quick to point out that there is unnecessary pageantry and political posturing in even the most life-and-death of situations.  The movie's politics are what makes it particularly interesting (that, and seeing Julie Andrews play a deeply promiscuous woman, which always feels a bit staggering), as the actual picture itself doesn't break a lot of molds and feels pretty tired when it isn't focusing on its refreshing (even if you don't agree with them) political views.

The film won two Academy Award nominations, both gaining from its black-and-white status (at the time Cinematography and Art Direction categories were split between color and B&W).  The film's art direction is impressive, I will give it that.  The sets all feel relatively authentic, and there are scenes like the one at Omaha Beach where there's clearly been some detailing done into creating a relatively authentic-looking battlefield.  Plus, the film is focused very ardently on the many things that you can want in a wartime effort, and the boxes show the excess of Charlie's position quite nicely.  The cinematography isn't bad, but aside from the truly frightening dew that is cast over the Omaha Beach invasion, there's nothing landmark here.  We see a bit of shadow and the lighting for Andrews is good, but this isn't something that needed an Oscar nomination by any stretch of the imagination, and one assumes it was just because we were starting to run out of black-and-white pictures that the movie took the citation.

Those are my thoughts on the surprising Americanization of Emily-how about yours?  Do you also find it strange to see Julie Andrews playing someone saucy?  Are you shocked occasionally by a movie's politics?  And what other black-and-white films got their Oscar counts jacked by them keeping dual categories around too long?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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