Controversial in its own time, it has since been praised as a "vanguard anti-war film". Both Garner and Andrews consider the film their personal favorite of those in which they acted.
Lieutenant Commander Charlie Madison (James Garner), United States Naval Reserve, is a cynical and highly efficient adjutant to Rear Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) in London in 1944. Madison's job as a dog robber is to keep his boss and other high-ranking officers supplied with luxury goods and amiable Englishwomen. He falls in love with a driver from the motor pool, Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), who has lost her husband, brother, and father in the war. Madison's pleasure-seeking "American" lifestyle amid wartime rationing both fascinates and disgusts Emily, but she does not want to lose another loved one to war and finds the "practising coward" Madison irresistible.
Profoundly despondent since the death of his wife, Jessup obsesses over the US Army and its Air Force overshadowing the Navy in the forthcoming D-Day invasion. The mentally unstable admiral decides that "The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor". A combat film will document the death, and the casualty will be buried in a "Tomb of the Unknown Sailor". He orders Madison to get the film made.
Despite his best efforts to avoid the duty, Madison and his now gung-ho friend, Commander "Bus" Cummings (James Coburn), find themselves and a film crew with the combat engineers, who will be the first sailors ashore. When Madison tries to retreat from the beach, the manic Cummings shoots him in the leg with a Browning .45 pistol. A German artillery shell lands near the limping-running Madison, making him the first American casualty on Omaha Beach. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine covers reprint the photograph of Madison running ashore, alone (in reality trying to escape from Cummings), making him a war hero. Jessup, having recovered from his breakdown, is horrified by his part in Madison's death. He makes plans to use the heroic death in support of the Navy when testifying before a Senate committee in Washington, D.C. Losing another man she loves to the war devastates Emily.
Then comes unexpected news: Madison is not dead but alive and well and at the Allied 6th relocation center in Southampton. A relieved Jessup plans to show him off during his Senate testimony as the "first man on Omaha Beach", a sailor. Madison, limping from his injury and angry about his senseless near-death, uncharacteristically plans to act nobly by telling the world the truth about what happened, even if it means being imprisoned for cowardice. Emily persuades him through his earlier spoken words to her to instead choose happiness with her by keeping quiet and accepting his role as a hero.
According to James Garner, William Holden was originally meant to play the lead role of "Charlie" Madison. Garner was originally selected to play the character "Bus" Cummings. When Holden backed out of the project, Garner took the lead role, and James Coburn was brought in to play "Bus".
The film introduced the song "Emily" which was composed by Johnny Mandel with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The song was recorded by Frank Sinatra with Nelson Riddle arranging and conducting on October 3, 1964 and included in the Reprise LP, Softly, as I Leave You. It was later recorded by Barbra Streisand for The Movie Album (2003).
The Americanization of Emily is based on William Bradford Huie's 1959 novel of the same name. The New York Times ran a brief news item mentioning Huie's novel prior to its publication, but never reviewed the novel, although in 1963 Paddy Chayefsky's development of the novel into a screenplay was found worthy of note. A first draft of the screenplay for the film was written by George Goodman who previously had a success at MGM with his The Wheeler Dealers, also starring James Garner. In 1964 a Broadway musical with music written by John Barry was announced. Chayefsky's adaptation, while retaining the title, characters, situation, background and many specific plot incidents, nevertheless told a very different story. "I found the book, which is serious in tone, essentially a funny satire, and that's how I'm treating it".
The screenplay's theme of cowardice as a virtue has no parallel in the novel; in fact, the novel does not mention cowardice at all.
The screenplay implies, but never explicitly explains, what is meant by the term "Americanization". The novel uses "Americanized" to refer to a woman who accepts, as a normal condition of wartime, the exchange of her sexual favors for gifts of rare wartime commodities. Thus, in reply to the question "has Pat been Americanized", a character answers:
Thoroughly. She carries a diaphragm in her kitbag. She has seen the ceilings of half the rooms in the Dorchester [hotel]. She asks that it be after dinner: she doesn't like it on an empty stomach. She admits she's better after steak than after fish. She requires that it be in a bed, and that the bed be in Claridge's, the Savoy, or the Dorchester.
This theme runs throughout the novel. Another character says, "We operate just like a whorehouse ... except we don't sell it for cash. We swap it for Camels and nylons and steak and eggs and lipstick ... this dress ... came from Saks Fifth Avenue in the diplomatic pouch". Emily asks Jimmy, "Am I behaving like a whore"? Jimmy replies, "Whoring is a peacetime activity".
The screenplay uses Hershey bars to symbolize the luxuries enjoyed by Americans and their "Americanized" companions; the novel uses strawberries rather than chocolate bars, in a parallel way. In his first dinner with Emily, he orders the waiter to bring strawberries. "She protested that they were too forbidden, too expensive". Jimmy convinces her to accept them by arguing, "If you don't eat them, they'll be eaten by one of these expense-account correspondents". Later, she asks Jimmy, "If I fall in love with you, how can I know whether I love you for yourself or for the strawberries"?
The novel briefly mentions that Emily's mother, Mrs. Barham, has been mentally affected by wartime stress, but she is not a major character. There is no mention of her self-deception or pretense that her husband and son are still alive. The film contains a long scene between Charlie and Mrs. Barham, full of eloquent antiwar rhetoric, in which Charlie breaks down Mrs. Barham's denial and reduces her to tears while nevertheless insisting that he has performed an act of kindness. The novel has no parallel to this scene.
In the film Charlie is comically unprepared to make the documentary film demanded by Admiral Jessup and is assisted only by a bumbling and drunken serviceman played by Keenan Wynn. In the novel Charlie has been a PR professional in civilian life, takes the assignment seriously, and leads a team of competent cinematographers.
The Americanization of Emily has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Bosley Crowther praised Chayefsky's screenplay as including "some remarkably good writing with some slashing irreverence". In Slant magazine, Nick Schager retrospectively wrote, "Though a bit overstuffed with long-winded speeches, Chayefsky's scabrously funny script brims with snappy, crackling dialogue." In A Journey Through American Literature, academic Kevin J. Hayes praised Chayefsky's speeches for Garner as "stirring".
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1965, for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, and in 1966 Julie Andrews' portrayal of Emily earned her a nomination for a BAFTA Award for Best British Actress.
The Americanization of Emily was among the films selected for The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.
The Americanization of Emily was released as a Region 1 Blu-ray DVD by Warner Home Video on March 11, 2014 via Warner Archive.