Also known as watching the Americanization of Emily. It has its moments, it's funny, it has James Coburn in it. I don't think I've ever watched a movie with James Coburn in it I didn't enjoy at least a little. Perhaps the Morgan Freeman Corollary needs to become the Coburn Corollary. Or I could create a Coburn Coefficient.
Still, I heartily disagree with Charles' (James Garner) point to Emily's mother about war. He insists that the best way to stop wars is to stop exalting dying in wars. I tend to think that's the human tendecy to make the best of a bad situation. A person loses a loved one, they don't want to think it was meaningless, or for no reason. So you get the idea they died for some great cause serving their nation. I think we'd be better served trying to eliminate greed, because how often do people start conquering because they want more than they have? Hitler argued - among other things - the Germans needed more Lebensraum, literally "living room". And German people said, "Sure, having more stuff sounds good, and he says we're a master race, so we ought to be able to have what we want."
One of the easiest ways to get more stuff is take it from a nearby person who already has it. The Vikings, the Aztecs, all the European imperialism, it was on some level about getting more stuff. More livestock, land, slaves, gold, natural resources, favorable trade routes so they can get that other stuff faster. It certainly ought to be easier to eliminate what Charlie's talking about than greed, but I'm unconvinced doing so would solve the problem of war.
I mean, do most people who participate in war eagerly anticipating their own deaths? Thinking, "Oh boy, I can't wait to be shot and die on some beach I'd never heard of!" I have my doubts. War is profitable. It enables officers to advance, to gain more money, authority, opportunities, power. Businessmen have the chance to mass produce all the things a war requires. Soldiers don't have that level of opportunity, but they can always take what they find as they go. Spoils of war of war, and all. Maybe people dress up their reasons in the terms of "liberation" and "manifest destiny" as Charlie asserts. That was Hitler's excuse for annexing the Sudetenland, to join the heavily Germanic population there with the one in Germany. Underneath it all though, wars start frequently because one group of people want something, and decide to take it from someone else. Then some other group of people decide they won't let the first group take what they please and away we go.
Now, I don't entirely disagree with Charlie, but someone needed to challenge him. Few people do. Emily and her mother don't, they sit there and let him make his big speech. Buzz (Coburn) argues with him later, but he makes the very arguments that Charlie's railing against, that being on the front lines and dying for your country is some great honor, and they should both feel blessed for the opportunity. That Buzz then loses his damn mind and chases Charlie onto Omaha Beach with a loaded .45, rather than let him withdraw to shoot the footage he's supposed to be getting, kind of proves Charlie's point. No one ever challenges Charlie calmly and rationally. It's Emily getting weepy and emotional, or Buzz being gung-ho.
I don't have an issue with Charlie being a coward. I wouldn't want to go to war and be shot at, possibly have to kill people, either. He did serve on the front lines (at Guadalcanal), albeit briefly, so he has an idea what it's like up there. Being scared of dying seems like a reasonable response. Admittedly, Charlie being the only one who doesn't place some moral value on dying makes life hard for him, since his superiors are just as enamored of his dying in battle as everyone else. So he gets overwhelmed by the sentimentalists, especially at the end.
I don't know what to make of the end. Charlie vows to tell the truth about what happened, then changes his mind and goes along with the lie about his being a brave hero. He does so for reasons that are perfectly in character for him. Namely, he doesn't want to go to prison for admitting cowardice in the face of the enemy, but that means he's allowing himself to be played up as the hero who bravely lead the charge onto Omaha Beach, which is exactly the kind of thing he dislikes. I guess Charlie is against the mythologizing of war in the concrete sense of it getting him or his brothers killed, which fits with his character. He says he doesn't believe in acting on principles. So maybe Arthur Hiller is saying to combat the mythologizing, you need someone opposed to it on principle, not merely on the grounds they don't wish to die.
I don't know if I'd call it a good movie. It's preachy, and one-sided, but heck, there are plenty of movies that extolled the virtues of dying in war. Having one going the other way is more than fair. There are quite a few parts that are funny. Charlie's just enough of a jerk - he's the kind of jerk who these days would say, 'I'm just telling it like it is' - that watching him get screwed over by this war mania of his superiors and friends is very amusing. I didn't want him to die, but I did like seeing him sweat.