Watching Stripes (1981) again after all these
years makes me nostalgic for the early comedies of the first generation of Saturday Night Live cast members: Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), Fletch (1984), and so on. They were goofy and silly but they also
had an engaging, anarchistic attitude that is so much fun to watch. This is
definitely the case with Stripes, a
film that pits a “lost and restless generation,” as the film’s main protagonist
(Bill Murray) puts it at one point, against rigid authority that is only
interested in producing, lean, mean, killing machines, to paraphrase another
character. Much of the film’s humor comes from the clash of these two
losing his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment all in one morning (“You
still have your health,” deadpans his best friend), John Winger (Murray)
decides to enlist in the Army and straighten out his life. He convinces his
best friend Russell Zisky (Harold Ramis) to enlist as well. “If I get killed,
my blood is on your hands,” he says, to which John replies, “Just don’t get it
on my shoes.” Once they arrive at the base and meet their no-nonsense drill
instructor, Sergeant Hulka (the perfectly cast Warren Oates), John and Russell
realize that it’s not going to be as easy as they imagined.
Stripes settles into a classic fish-out-of-water
formula as John and his misfit platoon (with the likes of John Candy and Judge
Reinhold) gradually become efficient soldiers despite their complete ineptitude
and perchance for breaking all the rules. The gang of misfits fulfills all the
requisite stereotypes: “Cruiser” (John Diehl) is the dumb guy, “Ox” (Candy) is
the lovable oversized oaf, “Psycho” (Conrad Dunn) is the crazy guy, and, of
course, John is the group joker and self-proclaimed leader. Other conventions
include casual nudity (Ox wrestles three strippers in a mud wrestling contest)
and the obligatory love interests as John and Russell get involved with two
cute, female MPs (P.J. Soles and Sean Young). This template would prove to be
so successful that it was exploited in films like Police Academy (1984), PCU
(1994) and countless others.
Ivan Reitman came up with the idea for the film just before the premiere of Meatballs (1979) in Toronto: “I felt
like it was time for another service comedy. We were in peaceful times, it was
post-Vietnam, and I thought it would be great to have some comedic look at the
Army that would not be another protest movie.” To that end, at the premier he
pitched “Cheech and Chong join the Army” to Paramount Pictures and, incredibly,
they greenlit the project that day.
and Dan Goldberg wrote the screenplay in Toronto and read it to Reitman (who
was in Los Angeles) over the phone. He gave them notes. Reitman gave the script
to Cheech and Chong’s manager and he read it. He thought it was very funny and
gave it to the comedians but they wanted complete control. Reitman then
suggested to Goldberg that they change the two main characters to ones suited
for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, figuring that if they could get Ramis
interested in it and let him tailor the script for the two of them that Murray
would be interested in doing the film. It worked and Murray signed on to do the
already co-written Animal House and Meatballs but was unknown as an actor.
He screen-tested for Columbia Pictures, who hated his audition but Reitman told
the studio that he was hiring him anyway. Judge Reinhold’s character, Elmo,
ended up with a collection of all the best jokes from the Cheech and Chong
version of the film. Before filming he thought that he had a handle on his
character but once filming started, he was “petrified” because this was his
first big studio film. The casting agent picked Sean Young based on how she
looked and P.J. Soles tested with Ramis and they got along very well together.
John Diehl had never auditioned before and this was his first paying acting
job. Goldberg knew John Candy from Toronto and told Reitman that he should be
in the film. He didn’t even have to audition.
contacted the United States Army for assistance, requesting a location to film
the basic training scenes and they gave him 3-4 environments. He chose Fort
Knox in Kentucky for its nearby proximity to Louisville for the city scenes and
the forested areas at the base that would double for some scenes set in Czechoslovakia.
He then sent writers Leo Blum and Goldberg to the base for six weeks to
research and get anecdotes from stationed soldiers there. The Army was very accommodating,
providing over a thousand soldiers and several vehicles for the background of
scenes, giving the film an authenticity.
the reasons why Stripes is my
favorite Bill Murray comedy are the little touches that he adds to a scene that
makes it that much funnier. For example, in the first scene where John goes to
pay a guy after getting a shoe shine, Murray turns his back to the man so that
he won’t see how much of a tip he’s going to give him. It’s an odd,
idiosyncratic choice that no one else would’ve thought to make but it enriches
the scene ever so slightly. The next scene demonstrates Murray’s gift for
physical comedy when he loads a snotty rich lady’s luggage into the trunk of
his cab and accidentally bags himself. It’s an obvious gag to be sure but
Murray still makes it funny.
continues to antagonize the lady (Fran Ryan) during the ride to the airport but
in a deadpan, sardonic way. At one point she says, “I’ve never gone this way
before,” to which he replies, “I’m sure there’s a lot of ways that I’ve gone
that you haven’t.,” implying that she’s square and conservative while he’s hip
and liberated, thereby establishing a clear generational gap. The rich lady
insults John and so instead of getting angry at her he decides to mess with
her, including one memorable bit where he starts driving fast. Suddenly
alarmed, she says, “Aren’t you going too fast?” He replies, intentionally
slurring his words, “Oh, it’s not the speed, really so much, I just wish I
hadn’t drunk all that cough syrup.” John proceeds to give the lady a little
scare but when she calls him a bum, he’s had enough and quits right in the
middle of a bridge, throwing his car keys in a river and leaving her stranded.
until almost eight minutes into the film that Elmer Bernstein’s first musical
cue appears and it is a slightly sad, whimsical tune. The scene where John’s
girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) leaves him is interesting because it
straddles the line between comedy and drama. She is clearly unhappy with their
relationship and he tries to deflect her complaints with humor before
half-heartedly saying, “I’m part of a lost and restless generation,” and
follows this up asking her a rhetorical question, “What do you want me to do,
run for the Senate?” This scene underlines John’s dilemma – he lacks direction
and any kind of motivation. Interestingly, no music plays during this scene so
that the gravitas of it, if you will, is not undermined by manipulative music.
Bernstein’s whimsical score only returns when Russell arrives and the two
banter back and forth about John’s sorry state of affairs.
chemistry between Murray and Ramis is excellent. The latter is the perfect
straight man to the former’s smart-ass slacker. They had been friends and
worked together for some years and play well off each other as evident in the
scene where Russell bets John that he can’t do five push-ups. It is in this
scene that John realizes that he’s in crap physical shape and that the army is
his only hope in turning his life around. Every scene had some element of
improvisation and this was due in large part to Murray and Ramis who suggested
things for him to say and this spread to the other cast members. Stripes is quite possibly Murray’s best
comedy. He was on his way to becoming a big movie star (he had already
conquered T.V. with SNL and a
scene-stealing turn in Caddyshack)
and applied the comedic chops he honed on T.V. to this role. Murray has a way
of delivering dialogue and being able to give certain lines a sarcastic
delivery or add a look or a facial expression that makes what he says so funny.
was a fan of westerns that Warren Oates had been in and wanted someone who was
strong and that everyone respected to control the misfit platoon. Reinhold said
that during filming, Oates would tell everyone stories about working on films
like The Wild Bunch (1969) and they
would be enthralled. The casting of Oates, the veteran of many Sam Peckinpah
films, gives Stripes a dose of gravitas
and provides a certain amount of tension in some of the scenes he has with
Murray. Sgt. Hulka is the ideal antagonist for the anti-authoritative John and
their scene together in the barracks’ washroom, where Hulka asserts his
authority, is filled with a palpable tension — unusual for a comedy but it
works. Reitman wanted “a little bit of weight in the center,” and have a real
argument between Hulka and Winger. It wasn’t played for laughs and allowed
Murray to do something he hadn’t done before.
improvisational nature of Reitman and some of the cast, however, did not
impress an old school actor like Oates. During one of the days of filming the
obstacle course scenes, Reitman told the actors to grab Oates and drag him into
the mud without telling the veteran actor about it in order to see what would
happen in the hopes of getting a genuine reaction. Oates’ chipped his front
tooth and was understandably pissed at Reitman, yelling at the director for
what he did.
film’s not-so secret weapon and scene stealer is John Candy as the lovable Ox.
For example, the scene where he introduces himself to the rest of the platoon
is quite funny. Candy portrays Ox as an earnest guy who wants to lose weight
while Russell, in the background, reacts hilariously to what he’s saying. Candy
also excelled at physical comedy as evident in the scene where Ox mud wrestles
several scantily-clad women. At first, they get the upper hand on him and he’s
afraid to hurt them, but after a pep talk from Winger and invoking the spirit
of Curly from the Three Stooges, Ox bests six women at once! Initially, Candy
wasn’t sure he wanted to do the film. “The original character didn’t look like
much but Ivan said we could change it and I could do some writing. Everything
fell together and we realized it could be a lot of fun.” That being said, Candy
was not crazy about doing the mud wrestling scene, feeling that it was sexist
and made him look bad. Co-star Dave Thomas remembers, “He was like, ‘Hey, I’ve
got a lot more to offer than this. Don’t make me wrestle nude women in a mud
tub.’” Reitman and Ramis managed to convince Candy to film the scene.
If Stripes has any weaknesses it is in the
last third of the film where the platoon, fresh from a successful graduation
parade, is trapped in an Eastern Bloc country (remember, the Cold War was still
in full swing at this point) looking for John and Russell after they took off
with the army’s top secret armored recreational vehicle (the uber Winnebago).
This part of the movie feels forced and tacked on. It just isn’t as strong or
as funny as everything that came before it. However, the first two thirds of
the film are so good that not even this hurts the picture all that much.
was actually fairly well-received by critics. Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review praised Stripes as "an anarchic slob movie,
a celebration of all that is irreverent, reckless, foolhardy, undisciplined,
and occasionally scatological. It's a lot of fun." Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it "a
lazy but amiable comedy" and praised Murray for achieving "a sardonically
exaggerated calm that can be very entertaining.” However, Gary Arnold, in his
review for the Washington Post,
wrote, "Stripes squanders at
least an hour belaboring situations contradicted from the outset by Murray's
personality. The premise and star remain out of whack until the rambling,
diffuse screenplay finally struggles beyond basic training." Looking back
on the film after many years Murray said, "I'm still a little queasy that
I actually made a movie where I carry a machine gun. But I felt if you were
rescuing your friends it was okay. It wasn't Reds or anything, but it captured what it was like on an Army base:
It was cold, you had to wear the same green clothes, you had to do a lot of
physical stuff, you got treated pretty badly, and had bad coffee.”
during a time when the United States wasn’t at war with anyone (unless you
count the Cold War), does joining the army to improve your life seem like an
option if you’re reasonably educated as John and Russell are in Stripes. One gets the feeling that they
could have easily had a productive life in almost any walk of life if they only
applied themselves. Joining the army on a whim doesn’t seem that funny in our
current climate which does date the film somewhat. Regardless, the script is filled
with tons of witty dialogue and funny gags, the cast is uniformly excellent,
and Murray and Ramis have never been better. At the risk of falling back on an old
cliché, they just don’t make comedies like this anymore.
Semlyen, Nick. Wild and Crazy Guys: How
the Comedy Mavericks of the ‘80s Changed Hollywood Forever. Broadway Books.
Michael. "Stars and Stripes."
Stripes Special Edition DVD. Columbia
Martin. Laughing on the Outside: The Life
of John Candy. St. Martin’s Press. 1997.
Kate. "Hail Murray." Entertainment Weekly. March 19, 1993.
Eric. “’That’s a fact, Jack!’ Stripes
creators celebrate 40th anniversary of Fort Knox-based classic.” Official
Homepage of the United States Army. June 25, 2021.