Cowardice Will Save the World

By all accounts, James Garner, who passed away Saturday at age 86, was a likeable guy, who excelled at playing likeable guys on the small and big screen. Many of the characters he played were interchangeable: wisecracking, sometimes glib, unsentimental, cynical. A number of them were cowards.

In one episode of the show that provided Garner with his initial fame, Bret Maverick said, “Bravery gets you nothing but hurt.” And Jim Rockford, Garner’s other big television role, was always a reluctant hero. But the biggest coward Garner ever played was in The Americanization of Emily. In that film, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison makes no bones about it. He says, “I preach cowardice.”

Andrews as Emily
Andrews as Emily

Emily is one of my all-time favorite films. I saw it shortly after its release in 1964. In those days, we had what was known as the “double bill” or “double feature.” You got to see two movies for the price of one (plus a cartoon). I don’t remember what the main feature might have been that afternoon (as I recall it was an afternoon), but Emily stayed in my mind. For one thing, it caused me to fall in love with Julie Andrews. I had already seen her in Mary Poppins, where she was practically perfect in every way, but in this movie, she was sexy as hell.

Emily was memorable for another reason . . . in 1964, I still had an idealistic view about war, I doubt I knew much about what was happening in Vietnam at that time, and I certainly had not read anything in-depth about Gandhi or learned the word ahisma yet, but Charlie Madison’s “cowardice” resonated, striking a pacifist chord that must have already existed within my 12-year-old soul.

Based on William Bradford Huie’s 1959 novel of the same name, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller, the film is essentially a satire on war, but it’s also about life, love, bravery, Hersey Bars and Coca-cola. Garner’s character, like Henley in The Great Escape, is a “scrounger,” and aide-de- camp for an admiral stationed in London. It’s just before D-Day and Charlie has things pretty good, living it up in his cushy job until he’s handed a dangerous assignment (photographing the first dead man on Omaha Beach) and falls in love with Emily, a British war widow.

This brief exchange conveys the two character’s outlooks on life:

Emily Barham: I believe in honor, service, courage, and fair play, and cricket, and all the other symbols of British character. Which have only civilized half the world!

Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison: You British plundered half the world for your own profit, let’s not pass it off as the age of enlightenment.

Chayefsky’s script captures the growing anti-war feeling, which in ’64 was actually little more than an undercurrent on college campuses across the U.S. Chayefsky later wrote Network, another cynical film, and it is his cynicism here that gave Emily its cutting edge. I don’t know, but I suspect that Chayefsky found the peacenik sentiment of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with its “Oh when will they ever learn?” refrain a bit trite. Waiting in the wings was flower power and the Summer of Love and it would be quite a while before we learned that they will never learn.

Which begs the question, is Charlie a craven coward, or that another word for a pacifist, a hero who sees the absurdity of war and refuses to participate in it. Charlie sums up his philosophy with these remarks to Emily’s mother:

We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on the ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogeys. 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 widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio…Yes. 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…Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September…Maybe ministers and generals blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution . . .”

You will have to watch the film yourself to see how Charlie’s views on war play out, and filmed in glorious black and white, it is a film well worth seeing . . . more than once. By the time Garner made it, he was in a position to pick and choose the parts he played, so I have to believe that he shared this cynicism toward the virtues of war, even though he was a true hero in the classic sense, receiving two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

moe2I’ll always be in love with Julie Andrews, and I will always have a fond regard for James Garner, a likable guy who played likeable guys so well that he seemed like a friend and it’s sad he’s no longer here.

And I think I shall always be a coward.