‘Stripes’ At 40: A Slightly Subversive Army Comedy Created At The Ebb Of American Empire

Ivan Reitman’s Stripes recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a limited run in select theaters, which was my initial excuse for a rewatch, though it turned out to be relevant in other ways.

Admittedly, Stripes isn’t a movie that I’ve thought about much in the four decades since its release. It’s been eclipsed in the cultural memory even by its SNL-vehicle peers of the same era — Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), Blues Brothers (1980) National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), and Ghostbusters (1984). Stripes existed more for me as a “boob movie” than a comedy, joining Revenge Of The Nerds on the list of “VHS tapes to put on when the parents were distracted” and emblematic of an era when comedy and full frontal nudity were strangely inextricable (almost certainly the legacy of the National Lampoon, the dominant comedic force of the era).

Under the circumstances, rewatching Stripes in 2021 is at least partly an anthropological endeavor. Certainly, it’s a classic boob movie for boys of a certain era. But is it more than a boob movie?

Bill Murray and Harold Ramis headlined in an era before Bill Murray had fully emerged as a movie star. Ghostbusters was probably the turning point, with Murray fully coming into his own in the late 80s/early 90s, with the string of Scrooged (1988), What About Bob? (1991), and Groundhog Day (1993). Before that, his cinematic output was decidedly mixed, with movies like Meatballs in 1978 (barely watchable today) and Where The Buffalo Roam in 1980, Murray’s weird, bad take on the Hunter S. Thompson mythos that probably came out a decade too early.

In Stripes, Murray was famous, but still more of a “star in the making.” Initially, it wasn’t even written as a Murray vehicle. According to Reitman, the script for Stripes began as an idea for “Cheech and Chong Join The Army.” Reitman sold it as such, but Cheech and Chong themselves ended up wanting too much creative control. The project was rejiggered for Murray and Ramis, who don’t especially seem like weed guys, though the finished product retains in many ways the feel of a loosey-goosey stoner comedy. It’s of a piece with boomer comedy touchstones like Animal House and Caddyshack: whether you find them subversively anarchic or just sort of half-assed is sort of in the eye of the beholder. For me it’s a bit of both; sometimes it feels like they were onto something, other times it just feels like they were just on something.

Stripes stars Murray and Ramis as John and Russell, two buddies living in New York City, working as a cab driver and an English-as-a-second-language teacher, respectively. Murray’s model girlfriend, played by Roberta Leighton, shows up just long enough to walk around their apartment topless (most of the reason female characters exist in this movie) before breaking up with John on account of he’s too much of an incorrigible slacker.

“It’s just not that cute anymore,” John’s girlfriend tells him.

“…It’s a little cute,” John teases.

Carefully maintained insouciance has been Bill Murray’s calling card basically since the beginning of his career, but he was still limited as an actor at this stage. It wasn’t until his slightly melancholy interior began to seep through his blasé exterior and humanized the whole that he developed the range we know and love him for now. Early on, and especially here, Murray’s aloofness is more like an impenetrable shell. Comedically-speaking, it mostly works, vaguely arrogant as it is. Still, it’s hard not to identify with the people in the story who get fed up with John’s shit. 40 years have sapped the “lovable asshole” character of much of its novelty value.

John decides to join the army on a whim, figuring it’s the only way to give his life some direction (and maybe get chicks in the process). He convinces his pal Russell to go along with it. Russell’s motivation here is a little thin, but no need belaboring an obvious plot contrivance. There’s a brief, funny scene at the army recruitment office, where the recruiter asks whether John and Russell are homosexuals.

JOHN: “You mean, like, flaming?”

RUSSELL: “No, we’re not homosexual — but we’re willing to learn.”

JOHN: “Yeah, would they send us someplace special?”

Credit to Stripes for writing a gay joke that’s still funny and relatively unproblematic 40 years later.

After that, John and Russell are off to basic training, joining a rag-tag group of enlistees that includes John Candy as “Ox” (the fat guy) and Conrad Dunn as Francis, who demands to be called Psycho. “Anyone calls me Francis, I’ll kill ya,” he tells the group. Which sets up arguably Stripes‘ most enduring line: “Lighten up, Francis.”

It’s hard to tell whether the Army was drastically different in 1981 or if Reitman and Murray were just applying what they’d learned on Meatballs, but Stripes‘ depiction of the Army is a lot like a glorified Summer camp, complete with gettin-to-know-you games played in a circle. It’s hard to imagine R. Lee Ermey standing for this.

John and Russell join what is, essentially, the Bad News Bears of Army units. Sergeant Hulka, played by veteran western character actor Warren Oates, is the acting standout, giving weird depth to what could easily have been the stereotypical “hardass drill sergeant” character (see: Ermey, R. Lee). Yet like John’s girlfriend, you end up weirdly identifying with Hulka, or at least bits of him, trapped as he is between his impenetrably insouciant new recruits and a sexually deviant commanding officer, played by John Larroquette. Larroquette’s Captain Stillman wears an ascot like a dandy while spying on women showering through a telescope (this scene, along with the later mud wrestling interlude, being most of the reason Stripes was “a boob movie”). Not enough “effeminate, megalomaniacal general” characters in comedy these days, I always say.

Eventually, Larroquette’s character inadvertently takes out Oates’ with an errant artillery shell, leaving the Bad News Bombardiers without a leader a week before the big drilling parade. Returning to the barracks after making love to some sexy MPs, played by Sean Young and PJ Soles, John and Russell find their compadres dejected and ready to quit. He gives them a Blutarsky-esque pump up speech — “We’re the US Army! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1!” — and they stay up all night practicing. They show up late to the next day’s parade, not in dress uniforms, but stepping and marching and chanting with the panache and unity of a fraternity at a traditionally black university. Stripes clearly came from the Blues Brothers era, when white guys simply singing or dancing was its own joke, no funny lyrics or context required. For me, it doesn’t quite land as a joke or a believable situation, but it’s pleasant enough.

The team’s surprisingly good performance at the gun dancing competition wins them a trip to Italy, to debut the new “EM-50 urban assault vehicle” (basically an armored RV) at a military trade show. They go AWOL touring Europe with their girlfriends and end up having to rescue their unit from Czechoslovakia. Just as with Full Metal Jacket, Stripes loses a lot of steam after basic training. Perhaps it’s just an eternal truth, that the idea of joining the military is much more intriguing than actually being in the military. Just ask anyone in a patriotic t-shirt about the time they almost served.

Most of the value of Stripes in 2021 is what an anachronism it is. Not just for the bare breasts and white guys singing, but for the depiction of American Empire at arguably its greatest period of calm in 100 years. We had pulled out of Vietnam years earlier and Ronald Reagan, the famous Cold War revivalist, had only been president for about six months. The idea of Czechoslovakia as “enemy territory” is funny now, but even the movie itself acknowledges the silliness of it (“Russell, come on, it’s Czechoslovakia,” John says after Russell suggests rescuing the unit). The movie is necessarily patriotic in certain ways, its protagonists being Army recruits who have to “save the day” after all. In fact, it was even made with the full cooperation of the US Army, and shot on an actual Army base, which is amazing to think about in and of itself.

Yet even Stripes‘ patriotism is heavily tongue-in-cheek. John’s remark about “we’re 10 and one!” in the middle of his pump-up speech, for example. The whole movie is suffused with the idea that the military is this weird relic of olden times. “What does the military do now, anyway? March around twirling their guns and going to glorified car shows? Join the Army? Gosh, what a silly idea!”

As Reitman told an Army reporter earlier this year: “I felt like it was time for another service comedy. We were in peaceful times, it was post-Vietnam, and I thought it would great to have some comedic look at the Army that would not be another protest movie. Those had been a staple of Hollywood.”

Though it’s certainly not “a protest movie,” as Reitman puts it, Stripes still feels subversive to modern eyes, which probably says more about the social climate in which it was created than the creators’ intentions.

As someone who spent a decent portion of my formative years in the post 9/11 years, when even your high school marching band t-shirt probably had an American flag on the back, it’s refreshing, almost shocking, to see the military not treated with that kind of post-W Bush-era reflexive deference. Even before 9/11, I remember a guy loudly saying “that’s treason!” at the screen while his girlfriend tried to shush him during the scene in Saving Private Ryan in which the weenie translator frees his German prisoner. That was in 1998. Even in 1994’s In The Army Now, which shares the same basic slackers-join-the-Army blueprint as Stripes, and was released in the relative lull between Gulf Wars, the comedic emphasis was more on Pauly Shore’s fish-out-of-water persona. Where Stripes is about two average-ish Joes joining the military, In The Army Now is about a wacky weirdo joining the military. John and Russell don’t really change that much, mostly they change the military.

Stripes is weirdly refreshing in this way, not because I desperately needed to see the military disrespected, it’s just that only a vanishingly small portion of my life was ever spent with the US not actively engaged in a war, proxy war, or pseudo war somewhere. And with the advent of the all-volunteer Army, that fake deference is mostly all we ask of our citizenry in times of conflict. (One joke in Stripes is that the unit’s dumb guy joined up because “I was going to get drafted anyway,” not realizing that there wasn’t a draft anymore).

The volume was turned way down on world affairs in Stripes. Rewatching it 40 years later, it’s animated not so much by nostalgia for movies that they don’t make like this anymore, but by a yearning for a world that didn’t seem so relentlessly serious and apocalyptic.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.