Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky holds the distinction of winning three Oscars for screenwriting solo, without a co-author. They were for “Marty” (1955), “The Hospital” (1971) and “Network” (1976). Four others have won three Oscars for screenwriting—Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, but each had co-authors on one or more of their collaborative works.
Returning to my focus on successful and interesting adaptations, in 1964 novelist William Bradford Huie had the wonderful fortune of having Chayefsky adapt his 1959 novel “The Americanization of Emily.” This loose adaptation of his World War II tale, directed by Arthur Hiller, concerns a U.S. naval officer in London, just prior to the D-Day invasion at Normandy. It featured James Garner, Julie Andrews (working on only her second film having just completed Mary Poppins), Melvin Douglas and James Coburn. The film has a definite anti-war theme, with a touch of dark satire. In fact, Hiller insisted on using black and white film to portray the darker mood most effectively.
In a cynical way, the story concerns the so-called unsung heroes of the war, “the dog-robbers.” According to the film’s post-credits scroll: “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 battle.” Every country has them, ours are best!
Lt. Commander Charles Madison (Garner) is the film’s main “dog-robber.” Madison is a self-proclaimed coward and his position keeps out of combat. Emily Barham (Andrews) is his driver in the English motor pool; she’s a war widow, who also lost her father and brother in the war’s early years. Madison works for slightly obsessed Admiral William Jessup (Douglas) who wants to create the best possible image for the Navy. Lt. Commander Paul “Bus” Cummings (Coburn) is Charlie’s womanizing colleague. Future “Laugh-In” stars Judy Carne and Allan Sues have small parts.
In the first few minutes of the film, Madison successfully schmoozes a naval supply officer with a bottle of rare bourbon, for six dozen sirloin steaks, a crate of oranges, a half dozen hams, and other goodies, like whiskey and gallons of ice cream.
Emily is appalled by Charlie’s actions, which prompts Charlie’s response: “We crass Americans didn’t introduce war to your little island. This war…to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition and stupidity…Europe was going brothel before we came to town.” But slowly romance follows and Emily thinks maybe this coward won’t likely be lost in combat. They eventually decide their love is true and Charlie proposes to her.
Later when Charlie meets Emily’s mother he explains, “Cowardice is my new religion…it will save the world. It’s the morality of war (that’s the problem)…as long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers—so I preach cowardice.”
The main focus of the story later concerns the crazed Admiral Jessep’s hair-brained plan to have a unit of Navy men, led by Charlie and Bus Cummings to make a heroic documentary film highlighting the role of the Navy in the D-Day Omaha Beach assault. He proclaims, “The first man dead on the beach must be a Navy man!” He further plans a tomb of the unknown sailor—to promote the Navy’s public image.
The night before the invasion, Emily has second thoughts about her relationship with Charlie and his cowardly participation in the invasion film and lectures him on truth and morality. When the troops finally hit the beaches of Normandy, Charlie is first out of the landing crafts, drops his camera and chickens out. Other cameras capture parts of this and when Charlie is assumed killed in action he is made a hero by the media. Of course, there is still another hilarious twist.
Garner is outstanding with his upturned eye glances and wide grins. Andrews is especially effective too in her dramatic part, without having to sing her way through a film. According to Shaun Considine’s biography “Mad as Hell: The Life and Works of Paddy Chayefsky” this film has been a favorite of both stars Garner and Andrews, as well as director Hiller. In fact in Garner’s 2012 memoir “The Garner Files,” he calls it his absolute favorite film.
Even though it was released just after the national turmoil of President Kennedy’s assassination and the escalation of the Viet Nam War, James Coburn notes, “Certainly it took heroism out of war. That was Paddy’s astuteness. He was like Shaw (playwright George Bernard Shaw) in that respect, able to bring down all the sacred cows, but with humor and paradoxical turns.” The film’s reputation has grown increasingly since in the decades since its release and after Chayefsky’s untimely death in 1981.