It’s an immoral job but someone’s got to do it. In wartime, generals need their perks – Winston Churchill with his cigars and champagne the best advocate. And those who supply the perks – Dog-Robbers in American parlance – expect their own perks in the form of a backroom job where they are never exposed to danger. Top U.S. Navy dog-robber in World War Two London on the eve of D-Day is Lt. Commander Edison (James Garner) who can spirit up whisky, steaks, nylon stockings and women, happy even to deliver shoulder massages for boss Admiral Jessop (Melvyn Douglas).
And like the recently-reviewed The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) what’s mostly on the minds of top commanders is jostling for power, how to win the public relations battle on D-Day and prevent the politicians considering scrapping the service post-war. So Jessup comes up with a brilliant wheeze. What if the first man to die on Omaha Beach was a sailor? Allowing for the construction of a memorial to the “unknown sailor,” a feasible proposition given the Navy demolition unit is scheduled to land on French shores in advance of the invasion force. Edison is enlisted to film the anticipated death.
But Edison, whose brother died at Anzio, is a coward and does everything possible to avoid the job. He struggles to get English girlfriend Emily (Julie Andrews), whose father and brother died in the war, to share his perspective and is counting on buddy Lt. Commander Cummings (James Coburn) to get him out of it. But Cummings has his own ideas and Edison ends up the sacrificial lamb.
And it would be a brilliant black comedy except that, in the interests of a happy ending, Edison, despite being shot on the beach by Cummings, turns up alive.
In that case it becomes a fascinating exploration of the realities of war, the moral and immoral coming to grief in a moral vacuum that ensures that the higher up the food chain the less likelihood there is of dying and, ironically enough, the better opportunity to enjoy, while the masses are on strict rations, the good things of life. Emily would act as the movie’s conscience except that Edison is having none of war’s hypocrisy. He doesn’t want to die for his country and may be following to the letter General Patton’s dictat of making the “other poor bastard die for his country.” He doesn’t so much take a stand against the absurdities of war as stand up for the sanctity of life, in particular his own life, unwilling to fall for the “futile gesture of virtue.”
There’s plenty of what you should and shouldn’t do during wartime, arguments passionately argued for and against duty, though even the self-appointed conscience Emily stops short of turning her nose up at the finer things of life, no matter by what dodgy means they fall her way. that her life teeters on hypocrisy is scarcely explored.
And it does its utmost not to fall into the trap of the wartime romance genre, will-he-won’t-he survive the dangerous mission, precisely because you could never mistake Edison for a hero. And you need a hero not an ordinary joe for that particular genre to work. So what you’re left with is something else entirely, a man brave enough to be seen naked, exhibiting exactly the same lack of scruples in saving his own life as his commanders would employ to have him lose it. It’s kind of complicated that way.
Throw in another get-out clause on behalf of the Allied command, the notion that no high-up would embark on such a selfish vainglorious action, and that Jessup only does so because he is temporarily unhinged after the loss of his wife, when in fact history is littered with generals committing troops to wholesale slaughter for their own reasons.
Ediuon is such a charming character that if you wanted someone to plead the case on behalf of the cowardly you couldn’t make a better choice. The whole idea shouldn’t work at all because it’s only the bad guys, the shifty ones that turn up in every war movie, who carry the cowardice flag. The film is so cleverly structured, with examples of the impact of loss all around, that it’s virtually impossible to vote against Edison. And part of the cleverness is the casting. If such a good egg as Emily can fall in love with Edison it somehow makes him a less despicable character. He’s certainly not as shifty as Jessup who dreamed up the bizarre stunt in the first place or Cummings, intent on exploiting it.
James Garner (36 Hours, 1964) excelled at playing the morally dubious, the cowardly sheriff played for laughs in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) his biggest box office hit, but this isn’t far short of his very best work, and an exceptionally bold role for a star. Julie Andrews was already trying to move away from her goody-two-shoes debut in Mary Poppins (1965) that would be further enhanced by The Sound of Music (1965) and while her characterisation is not, on the surface, that far away from either role, the depth she displays here, the sorrow and the soulfulness, give this a edgier riff.
Good support from James Coburn (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, 1966), Melvyn Douglas (Hotel, 1967), Keenan Wynn (Man in the Middle/The Winston Affair, 1964) and Joyce Grenfell (The Yellow Rolls Royce, 1964).
Director Arthur Hiller (Tobruk, 1967) most of the time walks a very fine line but manages to create a very thoughtful movie that humanized what other anti-war pictures failed to make personal. Oscar-winner Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, 1955) based the screenplay on the bestseller by William Bradford Huie (Wild River, 1960).
Another in the mini-genre concerning power politics in the Armed Forces. Would make a good triple bill if teamed with The Charge of the Light Brigade and Man in the Middle.