What religious persuasion are you?”
“I’m a practicing coward”
Charlie Madison (James Garner) gives his ecclesiastical response to Mrs Barham (Joyce Grenfell)
Again, as part of my current film course, I find myself watching an old film classic…it’s a hard life.
This week I need to write a profile of an actor/writer/director from the world of film, and I’ve gone for Jim Garner.
In preparation I’m digging out some his stuff taped off the telly over the years, and tonight was 1964s The Americanization of Emily, directed by Arthur Hiller. This was on TCM a few years back and I haven’t watched it all the way through, until now.
Garner plays Charlie Madison, a “dog robber” for the US Navy. A dog robber’s duty is to his General, making sure all his needs are catered for, from Hershey bars to women.
Julie Andrews is the titular Emily, a soft-spoken driver for the army who meets Madison while on duty. After some toing and froing they end up “an item”.
Garner’s character is the kind he plays best: charming, smart and desperate to avoid seeing combat. Playing someone who’s simply a self declared coward would be dull, so it’s left to a sparkling script from Paddy Chayefsky to add another dimension to Madison.
This is never more apparent than in an early scene with Garner, Andrews and Joyce Grenfell as her mum. A scene that has gone down in film history as being one of the finest tirades against the military and war ever put on celluloid. I’m going to quote at length here, even though they should be seen and heard in context. This is Garner doing some of his best work:
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he’s capable of … it’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: 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 ten million 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. And it’s always the 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 bogies.
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 widows’ weeds like nuns 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.
Powerful stuff. And that’s quite near the start, with a lot of other great moments to come.
This speech has been denounced by some critics as anachronistic – a 60s anti-war polemic placed in the mouths of 1940s characters who probably wouldn’t have been quite so cynical at the time.
That’s possibly true, but as a stance on the politics of war and the ultimate victims I tend to side with it.
There’s a lot more to praise about the film, including a great performance from James Coburn, Garner’s co-star from the previous year’s The Great Escape. And a fantastic twist ending that I didn’t predict…
The Garner-a-thon continues tomorrow night with How Sweet it Is, while the Garner/Andrews reunion, Victor/Victoria is on TCM tomorrow night – the movie gods are smiling on me.
DVD Watch: One result is that I’ve now gone and ordered Network, also written by Chayefsky, another film I’ve meant to watch for ages. It was going cheap…though a quick google tells me a Special Edition is out on Region 1 which I’ve missed…
Updated: 12 January 2008
I thought I’d add a clip from YouTube of the speech mentioned above: