There are very few movies that I watch regularly, but the 1980s comedy Stripes written by Harold Ramis (who also co-starred with Bill Murray), Dan Goldberg, and Len Blum, is a film I watch every year at least a half dozen times. When I was in college pulling all-nighters, the film was in a rotation with about four others that I would always watch.
In recent years, I have become fascinated with going back and analyzing the films that I grew up on, like Stripes and other Bill Murray-starrers, and seeing how well or badly they age. Most of them do not hold up the same, but I still love them… most of them. I’m definitely an intersectional feminist and the portrayals of women in 1980s comedies are, for the most part, pretty negative. Even when they are the protagonists, there is often still an element of getting them back in the house to be the homemakers or having them taken down a notch by the slacker male protagonists. This isn’t new, Margaret Dumont’s straight-man performances in seven Marx Brothers’ films definitely sent a message that we have seen evolve over time. I’m fascinated by this evolution, as well as how we look back at these jokes. What is forgivable? What is simply a product of the time vs. something that has long-term damaging effects?
Stripes came out a year after Private Benjamin. Both films were big hits, fish-out-of-water-comedies about the military, and starred symbols of the counter-culture. But the big difference between them is Private Benjamin is about a woman who needs the military to break her down before she could build back up herself back up as an independent woman, and Stripes is a buddy bro comedy that is ultimately an advertisement for the military. The propaganda aspect of Stripes was intentional on the part of director Ivan Reitman and cowriter Dan Goldberg, who worked with the Pentagon to get the script approved so they could use real military resources. My deep-dive into understanding that process ended up inspiring a recent Medium post which you can read here. Medium does have a paywall but new readers get a few free reads. Now, let’s get into the breakdown!
Protagonist: John Winger (Bill Murray)
Want: Get through basic training (basically proving Hulka wrong)
Need: Not to be so selfish
Personal Antagonist: Sgt. Hulka (positive)
External Antagonist: The Army, represented by Captain Stillman
Pre-Existing Life: John Winger (Bill Murray) is a cab driver in NYC who loses his job, his apartment (he says this but I feel like I miss it somehow), his car, and his girlfriend all in one day. We see a passenger belittle him, an instead of just grinning his teeth, he makes a big scene, pulling over on the side of a bridge and tosses his keys over the side. His girlfriend, Anita, is already done with him when he gets home, telling John that he’s immature and not ready to build a life with him. He laments to his best friend Russell (Harold Ramis), who works as an ESL teacher.
Inciting Incident: While complaining to Russell, John spots an advertisement for the Army and thinks it’s a great way to turn his life around. He talks Russell into joining up with him.
First Act Decision: The boys arrive for basic training (after meeting a couple pretty MPs – Stella Hansen and Louise Cooper) and are introduced to their drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates). John speaks out during Hulka’s intro speech and upsets him. As they go through Army “makeover”, John apologizes to him and says he won’t let it happen again. Russell doubts it worked, but John appears to want to keep trying.
Reversal: John struggles to keep his snarky commentary to himself throughout basic training and Hulka retaliates by punishing him with extra drills. The rest of the platoon is getting to know each other and bond as they work hard. After a private confrontation with Hulka, John attempts to desert and is caught by a furious Russell. They are picked up by Stella and Louise who take them back to the barracks. By the time they’re dropped off, John has decided to stay through basic training in spite of Sgt. Hulka.
Midpoint: Captain Stillman is told his troops are up for a specials EM-50 project and the pressure is on. During training, John is fed up with Hulka yelling at his fellow soldiers, so he challenges Hulka to climb the rope himself. At the same time, Stillman tells a soldier across the field to fire a grenade without any coordinates. The grenade hits the base of the platform and Hulka is knocked out. The platoon no longer has a Captain. They celebrate by sneaking off the base to a club with naked mud wrestling for bonding time.
Reversal #2: The squad is picked up by Military Police and scolded for leaving the base. John and Russell are picked up for a night with Stella and Louise. When they return, they realize they only have one night to learn all of basic training for graduation the next day. They stay up all night, with John rallying them with an oddly inspiring speech.
False Climax / Low Point: The soldiers wake up late for graduation. They race over and perform. The visiting Sgt. Barnicke is thrilled and thinks they’re perfect for the EM-50 project. The platoon ships off to Italy where they are met by a healed Sgt. Hulka, who is not ready for them to make a mockery of the Army on this project.
Third Act Decision: John and Russell are tasked with babysitting the EM-50 (a weaponized RV) and decide to take it off campus to visit Stella and Louise in Germany. Stillman finds the EM-50 missing and panics. He grabs the rest of the troops for a covert mission to get the RV back. They are nabbed by Czechoslovakian troops, but Hulka manages to slip away. Hulka sends a message for help that John and Russell hear and decide to save their platoon.
Climax: John, Russell, Stella, and Louise bust through the border and track down the location of their friends. They are in an all out battle as they finally find and retrieve the others and fly back over the border, collecting a hiding Hulka on the way. The team flies home where they are met with a marching band and Hulka and John salute each other in a show of mutual respect.
The movie is interesting in that you could argue a couple different “first act decisions”. I actually lean towards the moment where John attempts to desert and then decides to stay as a stronger one, but it’s way too late in the script to make sense. Most people would probably argue that the decision is to join the Army. I think this is a common error that even professional screenwriters confuse themselves with. If you break down scripts into sequences and then beats, you’ll find that the Set Up of the First Act Decision will feel like a decision, but a well-written script will have a larger decision that is harder to make.
John clearly makes sporadic choices in his day-to-day (like tossing his keys over the side of a bridge out of anger) so joining the Army might seem like a big decision for the average person but he’s just as quick to try to leave as he is to try to stay. The hardest emotional choice is to try to win Hulka over, and you see when he apologizes to Hulka that he’s hoping his normal charisma will simply win Hulka over but he’s going to continue trying. That’s why I think that moment is the reveal of his decision, to stick out basic training and prove Hulka wrong, even though it’s not outright stated. Is it the strongest First Act Decision ever? No. And there are a lot of high-concept comedies that have this problem and you see the ramifications of a weak first act decision usually at the end of a second act/start of the third act.
If you go and look at a lot of the reviews for Stripes they reference that the third act feels like a different film. The EM-50 project is set up early on, but the international incident is caused by John and Russell. It’s hard to view them as heroes with Stella and Louise, splashed on magazine covers, when they created the problem that the Department of Defense didn’t even want to acknowledge.
It’s also super interesting to me that this movie and Private Benjamin only came out a year apart and are so completely different in their intention. You can feel the difference in scope with how much of the base you see in Stripes and how Private Benjamin works hard to “cheat” the same effect. Stripes was meant to be a recruiting tool for the military, per Goldberg’s sales pitch to the Pentagon. Private Benjamin is about Judy’s journey. She needs the military to help show her how privileged she is, but she’s also a strong negotiator and speaks multiple languages. When she leaves the Army it’s because she thinks she wants to be a wife, but when she leaves her wedding day, the audience doesn’t know if she’s going back to the Army. They just know that she will be fine no matter what she chooses.
I would argue that Stripes is the fish-out-of-water military comedy most people remember, but Private Benjamin is the one that really deserves the long term love. I have a theory about why this is (… hint, hint, sexism – you better not be rolling your eyes), and we’ll get into that another time…