Byline: James Wolcott
As if to make amends for the cheap heroics that Hollywood war movies have flexed over the century-the beachhead assaults led by John Wayne, squinting with solemn resolve as he clutches the dog tags of a slain supporting actor; the aerial sagas with bomber crews cracking jokes in the cockpit as enemy fighters buzz in to spoil their picnic; Clint Eastwood, a golem of pure gristle, liberating the tiny country of Grenada in Heartbreak Ridge-other filmmakers present the flip side of playing soldier, the puking realities. They produce anti-war movies that resemble ghastly hangovers that never lift, nightmares on endless replay. The traditional anti-war movie surveys the mired killing fields to etch man's inhumanity to man, the cruel caprices of fate that make a mockery out of recruiting-poster propaganda. (In All Quiet on the Western Front, a hand reaches out from the trenches to capture a butterfly, a bullet sings, and the hand slumps lifeless, as dead as a monkey's paw.) They're documents of disillusionment, the horrors of war inscribed on the ravaged faces of the survivors (Kirk Douglas marching accusingly toward the camera in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory), or hushed away in the hospital wards where nunlike nurses attend to maimed limbs and mummied heads (Johnny Got His Gun, which unfolds within the tortured consciousness of a mute, immobile "vegetable"). Commercially, such movies can be tough sells. Reviewers may applaud such honorable efforts for being uncompromisingly "grim" and "harrowing," but how many moviegoers want to be grimly harrowed?
Yet an anti-war film need not traffic in gore and burnt-out cases to mail its message home. Perhaps the most subversively dovish statement ever crafted in Hollywood barely dallies a moment on the battlefield and doesn't withdraw into shell-shocked silence-it loves hearing itself talk too much. It's a true rarity, a cheerful tract. It's also the most unjustly neglected classic comedy of the postwar era-The Americanization of Emily, the greatest Billy Wilder film that Billy Wilder never made.
By which I mean that the item in question, starring Julie Andrews and James Garner, adapted by Paddy Chayefsky from the novel by William Bradford Huie, and directed by Arthur Hiller (who later gave us Love Story, but let's not be punitive), has the signature traits of a Wilder romp-the gift of gab, the bold-stroke characterizations, and the madcap reversals of fortune. Moreover, William Holden, who had won an Academy Award as the cynical heel in Wilder's Stalag 17, was originally cast as the male lead. But The Americanization of Emily beats Wilder at his own game. Where Stalag 17 now seems too chuffed with its cocky iconoclasm, a smug complacency that corrodes many of Wilder's comedies as the years go by, The Americanization of Emily seems more adult and daring today than when it was released, in 1964. The country around it has changed, its people too. America has become a more brutally …