(1964, b/w) "God save us all from people who do the morally right thing," says Lt Cmdr Charlie E. Madison (James Garner) to his English driver, Emily Barham (Julie Andrews): "It's the rest of us who get broken in half. You're a bitch." Actually, Emily is a widow (having been a bride of only a few days) whose husband was killed at Tobruk, brother Charlie during the blitz, and father in the First World War.
Also Charlie says, "You're something of a prig." In truth, she tells Sheila: "I'm grotesquely sentimental," having slept with boys wounded in Africa on furlough before their being sent back to the front. Thus, she falls in love easily with a "complete rascal," Charlie, the US Navy's best dog-robber (personal attendant seeing to the well-being of a superior officer) for Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), because he isn't brave: "I've had it with heroes."
Set in London in the late spring of 1944, leading up to D-Day, director Arthur Hill's antiwar dramedy, based on William Bradford Huie's novel, from a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, with Johnny Mandel's score, delivers a direct hit on grandstanding jingoism that lays claim to any war's having grandeur, heroism, or exceptionalism.
Before taking Charlie home to meet her dotty mother (who pretends her son and husband are yet alive), Emily remonstrates with him: "I think it profane to enjoy this war." Replying to Mrs Barham's (Joyce Grenfell) inquiry as to his religious affiliation, Charlie answers: "I'm a practicing coward." Because war offers a man the rare chance at redemption, it remains attractive, Charlie extemporizes, sharing his personal history with Emily and her mother: as a Marine private he'd been at Guadalcanal where he'd had an epiphany - "Cowardice will save the world" - before returning home to a divorce.
"War isn't hell at all," Charlie the charming scoundrel insists: "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."
We make heroes of the dead and shrines of battlefields, luring future generations into believing in the false valor of being virtuous, Charlie ventilates, concluding that we must "resist honoring the institutions" of war.
Meanwhile, fearing his beloved Navy will be scrapped after the war, Admiral Jessup, suffering "eccentric flashes" following the loss of his wife Florence a year earlier, seeking a way to juice up his appeal for more appropriations from the Joint Committee on Military Affairs ("Hitler had everything, except a navy"), has a brainstorm: "The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor!" Then he'll use his Washington connections to have a tomb built dedicated to "The Unknown Sailor."
First he assigns to Lt Cmdr Bus Cummings (James Coburn) the duty of making a movie of the naval demolition engineers, who will precede the invasion, responsible for removing underwater mines, for public relations in his campaign. But most important, the camera crew must obtain a photograph of the first casualty.
Bus with his devious smile and Annapolis mood of service loyalty manages to shift the responsibility onto his buddy Charlie's shoulders. "A man could get killed," retorts Charlie, who having fallen in love is about to get married.
Looking for an angle to avoid the deadly duty, Charlie discovers a chink through which he can crawl on his yellow belly, requiring a "little deceit," which backfires when Emily reacts with revulsion to his treating the mission, during which thousands of men will be killed and maimed, as an obscene joke: "I despise cowardice…. I don't want to see you again."
What's a guy to do who needs to redeem himself with his girl with a war going on but earn some valor by becoming a hero. Even if it means having to get killed?
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