Directed by Arthur Hiller
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
– James Garner as Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison
– Julie Andrews as Emily Barham
– Melvyn Douglas as Adm. William Jessup
– James Coburn as Lt. Cmdr. ‘Bus’ Cummings
“We perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice.”
“I’m not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows.”
— Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison
Charlie Madison (James Garner) is, by his own admission, a coward. In fact, he long ago stopped trying to find meaning in the world and settled for a religion of cowardice, which places self-interest, greed, and pragmatism above all other values. He proudly wears the uniform of a Naval officer, but he’s never seen combat and isn’t about to start, even if we’re at war on two fronts. Instead, he procures expensive liquor, gourmet food, and attractive women for his superiors, and isn’t above sneaking a little on the side for himself. He’s a close relative of Milo Minderbender from Catch-22, believing that if profits are to be made from mass murder, it might as well be him. As constructed by the acid pen of the late genius Paddy Chayefsky, Charlie is a rotten bastard to be sure, but he’s so himself that he’s simply impossible to loathe. If we are offended by him, it’s only because we see ourselves in his smirk; our own frailties in his lewd demeanor. But Charlie is but one of the film’s reprehensible gallery of fools, and once again, we’re glad Chayefsky has seen things so clearly. Released in 1964, it’s one of the most sustained blasts against the military ever produced, and unlike more overrated fare like M.A.S.H., it holds it’s cynicism until the very end, offering no solace for those who might think a little redemption is in order.
The film, as expected, is packed with delightfully vicious monologues, most of which center on the hypocrisy most of us bathe in so that we can get through our days. Charlie might not care for America’s dimwitted romance surrounding the sting of battle (as he states, we have made a cottage industry of crass commemoration), but he’s not about to let Emily (Julie Andrews) get away with her smug superiority, either. His assessment of Europe’s blood-soaked folly is devastating and irrefutable, more so when he refuses to let his own “silly Yanks” off the hook. Charlie — through Chayefsky — is thoroughly disgusted with the whole rotten enterprise of war, and because he’s able to see behind the public image and into the bars, back alleys, and hotel suites, he knows that for every medal pinned on some brave sot’s chest, there’s a string of immorality and ignoble behavior in its wake. More than that, the men at the top (typified by Admiral William Jessup, played by a commanding Melvyn Douglas) rot most of all, issuing idiotic orders because, at bottom, they are pathologically insane.
That the top brass might be afflicted with madness is nothing new (despite our war-mongering ways, we have a legacy of oppositional literature), but this film goes one step further by indicting all of us who attend parades, salutes soldiers at airports, or even drape flags on the graves of the “greatest generation.” Anyone not lobotomized by the lust for bloodshed long ago realized that the only way to ensure willing meat for the grinder is to elevate the “sacrifice” involved. Through such terminology, young men (and trashy, hill-folk women) are brainwashed into believing that fighting on behalf of corporate and governmental interests is “brave” and “noble,” when in fact putting lead into other human beings is nothing more than civilized, ritualized murder. We can talk all we want about “necessity” and “the reality of a dangerous world” (and even understand that often, we really do have no choice but to take up arms), but slapping the label of “courageous” onto someone who has ended life in its tracks is a sign of perversity and dehumanization; two traits Chayefsky would grapple with for most of his career as a screenwriter.
Take Jessup’s grand plan for the Normandy invasion: in order to emphasize the Navy’s valor (and continued place at the appropriations table once the war ends), he wants to send a film crew to Omaha Beach so that the cameras can capture the image of a sailor being the first to die in that great invasion to liberate Europe. While most of us are intimidated into silence by assorted stars and bars, Chayefsky dares suggest that these creeps with titles are more concerned with P.R. and defense spending than the lives of their men. They are little more than politicians with firearms, and the film gleefully removes from them from their perch. Jessup becomes so consumed by his plan that he “cracks up,” although his plans are not questioned and Charlie is recruited for the ridiculous task. Another brave scene involves Charlie’s march to the beach on the landing craft. Fellow soldiers vomit from fear, and he even admits that he’s cold and afraid. In fact, like so many seen in this battle, reluctance trumps other so-called virtues.
Charlie makes it ashore, but turns back towards the boat. He might be others’ idea of a symbol for the newspapers, but once the bullets fly, his sole concern becomes waking up the next day. We’d like to believe our fighting men die for king and country, but once they’re in the shit, motivations become reduced to a single, evolutionary directive; survival. But before Charlie can run away from the action, Lieutenant Commander “Bus” Cummings (James Coburn) fires at him, hitting him several times. Cummings insists that Charlie died like a hero; after all, there’s a camera close by to capture his final breath. The picture is snapped, its symbolic power sent to newspapers and magazines around the world, and the navy basks in the glory of a job well done. Again, no mention is made of what D-Day is supposed to have accomplished; the generals are content with a successful mission that will inspire a monument at Charlie’s grave. Chayefsky’s message is simple, yet brutally frank — as a people, we prize symbols over fact, and image over reality. And yet the war pigs maintain their steady march.
Still, the film wouldn’t be half the success it is without the final act. While the military establishment is successfully raked over the coals (when they’re not sending men to their deaths, they’re bed-hopping like its a Benny Hill sketch), we must return to Charlie, whom we left a mere coward. In order for the circle to be complete, he must be a liar as well. Amazingly, he actually survived the event (much to the shock and disgust of Cummings), and after a brief rest, returns to England for a press conference. Puffed up with martyrdom, Charlie intends to reveal the entire charade, which might bring about a spell in the brig, but at least his conscience will be clear. After a few harsh words from a sharp-tongued Emily, better heads prevail and Charlie realizes the only thing to do is preserve the illusion. As such, the organization is protected, the Navy gets its money, and more young men, inspired by Charlie’s example, will sign their own death warrants and head to military camps across the globe. As the doctor said at the conclusion of Chayefsky’s The Hospital, the notion of “being responsible” is like “pissing in the wind,” but what the hell, it’s all we have.
And what does it mean, then, to be “Americanized?” Consider this exchange between Charlie and Emily; that is before they engage in a perfectly unromantic affair:
Emily: You brought me some chocolates.
Charlie: Two boxes of Hershey’s.
Emily: Well, that’s very American of you, Charlie. You just had to bring along some small token of opulence. Well, I don’t want them. You Yanks can’t even show affection without buying something.
Charlie: Well don’t get into a state over it. I thought you liked chocolates.
Emily: I do, but my country’s at war and we’re doing without chocolates for a while. And I don’t want oranges or eggs or soap flakes, either. Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.
Ah yes, the American spirit — we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Especially not when it’s the dignity of man we’re talking about.