Paddy Chayefsky's cutting black comedy was the first film to wring laughs from the notion that perhaps not all American troops had a completely gung-ho attitude toward their WWII service. James Garner stars as Charley Madison, a wheeler-dealer officer who prides himself on avoiding combat while he romances strait-laced Englishwoman Emily Barham (Julie Andrews) in the countryside. When she refuses to marry him due to his reluctance to pick up a rifle, he's forced to reconsider his position. Emily is a coruscating piece of work by the legendary Chayefsky, who fashioned one of the most thoughtfully hilarious films ever written on military service and marriage in a series of brilliant one-liners. Although Garner is assailed as a coward by his girlfriend, few commentators have noted that his pragmatic code of values is identical with that of Casablanca's (1942) Rick Blaine ("I stick my neck out for nobody"). When Charley says he would die to defend what is his -- his wife, his house, and his family -- he expresses a sentiment that runs deep in American life. Conversely, Emily's mantra of God, honor, and country expresses the spirit of self-sacrifice in wartime for which the British are famed. One of the film's great strengths is that the iconography of each of these two performers expresses perfectly, without a word being spoken, something essential and opposed about their native cultures, and at the same time they have terrific sexual chemistry. Yet, this may be even more a film about marriage than about war. When Emily questions the value of Charley's live-for-today creed, asking in effect, "Are you going to get rid of me when I'm not fun any more," she's spoken the key line of the film. If Charley would slide out of his military duties, why wouldn't he eventually slide out on her? That the film never answers these questions is one of its beauties, and as Charley reminds her, marriage is always a gamble.
James Coburn as Charley's cunning buddy, Melvyn Douglas as a wavering admiral, and Joyce Grenfell as Emily's mother are all perfectly cast. The film's only drawbacks are Arthur Hiller's shaky direction and a low-budget D-Day scene, in which Garner is not just the first, but seemingly the only man charging the beach.