Although I’d never have admitted this at the time, I was raised by a fairly cool set of parents who didn’t really mind if I watched R-rated films. Their perspective was that such popcorn fare would, at worst, only contribute to a very developed knowledge of curse words and phrases, and shitdamnfuckall, they were correct. As such, one can be certain that Stripes is a movie that I’ve seen more times than I can even begin to quantify. Naturally, it was quite some time before I could fully appreciate the film as more than a broad comedy, and a very funny one at that. This classic film is the work of a truly ensemble cast and a set of bona fide filmmakers that, unfortunately, would probably not have been chosen by producers of today’s comedies. At the time, director Ivan Reitman was quickly establishing himself as a staple director of the comedy genre. He was accompanied by cinematographer Bill Butler, who worked on The Godfather, Jaws, and several of the Rocky films, and composer Elmer Bernstein, whose vast experience is virtually impossible to summarize and who commanded not only the film’s easily recognizable anthem but also that meandering piano theme that, just like a little black cloud, follows Bill Murray’s character during his lowest moments. Nobody really pulls off “underdog,” “mutt,” or “wretched refuse” like Murray, and he’s a huge part of why this $10 million budget comedy transformed into an $85 million run at the box office. Hell, if one were to go even further and adjust these 1981 gross ticket sales for inflation, well, there’s simply not many genuinely great comedy films out there that can even hope to compare.
Stripes, of course, features Murray at his unbeatable best as John Winger, who gives the finger to authority in a way that many of us would only dream of doing. He’s an intelligent fellow but also a sort of armchair anarchist who leans a bit too heavily on his own self-destruct button. His job as a cabbie finds him in a meaningless job serving uppity, overbearing rich ladies that address him as a low-life, no good piece of garbage, and when Winger starts fucking with one lady by taking “action shots” with his camera, one gets the sense that he does this on a regular basis for his own amusement. He may very well be going nowhere, but he’s doing it with flair. In quick succession, John quits his job, loses his apartment, watches his car get repossessed, ruins his dry cleaning, and (perhaps worst of all) drops his pizza in the street. Then, as a consolation prize, John’s girlfriend dumps him, and as the door shuts behind her, the sad clown says, “And then, depression set in.” John’s best friend Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis), rather unsuccessfully attempts to be the voice of reason, but, at this most unkind of rock bottoms, John realizes that he destroys everything that he touches, and he needs some serious discipline in his life. His solution, of course, sounds pretty fucking stupid: “I gotta get in shape. I gotta dry out before I’m thirty. The army’s my only chance.” Naturally, John manages to convince Russell to join him, and so the journey begins.
Of course, once John actually finds himself in basic training, his subversive tendencies are not remedied, and his every attempt to undermine Sergeant Hulka’s (Warren Oates) authority generally results in dumpster-scrubbing duty or endless sets of push-ups in the pouring rain. Even when John outwardly apologizes to Sergeant Hulka for being “a comedian,” that telltale piano theme informs us that never, not even once, does John’s character undergo the slightest of changes from within. However, when Hulka gets sidelined later on in the film, John discovers a way to channel his idiosyncrasies into a form of leadership power. With any other actor, John Winger would only come off as a hypocritical schmuck for assuming control over his platoon, but, somehow, Murray’s sardonic, deadpan wit, which appears empty at times and wholly ironic at others, pulls this paradox off. Obviously, Murray’s laconic performance is the centerpiece of the film, along with that of real-life friend Ramis serving as the more sensible foil to Murray’s loosely collected anarchic tendencies. As one of the film’s screenwriters, Ramis knows how to place Murray within a script, as he also did previously in Meatballs and Caddyshack. With Stripes, however, Ramis was coaxed out from behind the writer’s desk to act alongside Murray, and the two are rather disarming as a pair, a trend that continued in Ghostbusters.
In addition to the straightforward comedic performances present in Stripes, that extra little touch comes from the reaction shots from other characters. Murray and Ramis play off each other perfectly, particularly during the scene where they fuck with the enlistment officer who, per routine, inquires whether the two men are homosexuals. As for the rest of the platoon, it is a carefully orchestrated set of misfits that are, to put it mildly, fucking brilliantly acted. Another great comedic pair can be witnessed in Dewey “Ox” Oxberger (John Candy), who aims to be a “lean, mean, fighting machine” and poor “Cruiser” (John Diehl), who, by his own admission, joined the Army to avoid the draft. Judge Reinhold makes his feature film debut as the drugged-up Elmo Blum, and I never fail to get a little masochistic kick out of Francis “Psycho” Soyer (Conrad Dunn). Further up the chain of command, John Larroquette appears as Captain “I Wish I Was A Loofah” Stillman, a terminally exasperated and self-centered prick. Finally, the late Warren Oates is sufficiently badass as Sergeant Hulka, who is particularly effective during a pivotal scene where he takes John into the bathroom for a lecture about “discipline and duty and honor and courage” before removing his hat and encouraging the stunned John Winger to take a swing. John misses his target, but Hulka certainly does not.
Look, I could go on like this forever, and, obviously, basic military training hasn’t ever been anything unusual as far as attempted comedy goes, but this film adds just the right amount of exploitation. With Stripes, part of its success was that came along at exactly the correct time, but, more importantly, it arrived with exactly the correct perspective of American military history. In 1981, Hollywood was coming off a decade of antiwar movies with no place for a military comedy. Stripes used its very broad comedy (aided by an excellent script) to diffuse much of the cultural tension and the lingering hangover from Vietnam. This tactic wasn’t a means of ignoring the significance of that blunder, but Stripes did infuse audiences with, overall, a more optimistic view of the military. In particular, the empowerment of John and Russell, once economic and social misfits but now celebrated heroes, worked a cathartic effect not unlike that of the American geopolitical whole in the 1980s.
This film contains two very infamous scenes (among many) that must be mentioned here. One of these scenes contains the perfectly parodied battle exhortation speech as delivered by John Winger. Upon Captain Stillman’s threat of repeating basic training, the platoon must, overnight, learn to perform a competent drill display. When initial leadership efforts by Russell quickly crumble and end in a chaotic brawl, John jumps in to deliver his battle exhortation speech that, despite these soldiers’ general incompetence thus far, convinces them that they are capable of heroism. Murray tells his platoon that they are American soldiers with a fighting record of “ten and one.” That one failure, of course, was the clusterfuck known as Vietnam. This speech, which is vintage Bill Murray, is at once underplayed and sardonic but simultaneously uplifting, and while this highly preposterous pep talk could have been greeted with laughter, Murray adds just enough enough seriousness that Winger might as well have been dictating from a Nietzschean crowd control epic. Spurred on, the platoon trains all night, and, the following day, impresses their audience with a very unorthodox yet accurate drill display for graduation, which is a great scene both in its performance and its inherent quotability.
At that point, the platoon ships to Italy and much of the film’s audience becomes divided as far as the Cold War rescue subplot is concerned. Perhaps this mini-invasion of Czechoslovakia and rescue of the platoon by John and Russell was a bit too Star Wars in its execution. Yes, it is perfectly absurd to think that these two misfits can get their crap together, rescue their fellow soldiers, and are actually celebrated for their exploits, but hell, this only reflects the underlying absurdity of the Cold War itself. Both of the world’s superpowers were so mucked up within their own paranoia and espionage, and each side was entirely convinced that the other had their fingers upon the button. At any moment, theoretically, the world could have ceased to exist, and humanity became obsessed with the threat of nuclear war, which was at once both very real yet wholly abstract. In a sense, Stripes very much reflects that same dichotomy of preposterousness and necessary seriousness.
As a brief shoutout for the film’s unrated and extended DVD, several deleted scenes make up an extra eighteen minutes of optional play time. Most of these scenes were rightfully omitted from the film’s theatrical version, but a few of them are well worth watching, including “The Chateau,” which features some lacking screen time for those gorgeous MPs played by Sean Young and (a very topless) P.J. Soles. In addition, some extra footage added onto the “John’s Apartment” scene shows us more about how John convinced Russell to enlist in the army as well. Damn, he’s smooth.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.
Stripes / Agent Bedhead
Pajiba Blockbusters | February 20, 2009 | Comments ()