A trifecta of talent was widely received when Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman came on the Hollywood scene. With films like “Meatballs” and “Animal House,” they were toeing the line of B movie T&A material. Audiences, however, responded to the wisdom in the comedic material of disregarding the authoritative party. That is especially evident in their R rated army romp from 1981, “Stripes.”
“Stripes” is arguably not their most memorable film of any of their careers, but for me it is probably my favorite; more than “Caddyshack” or “Ghostbusters.” The comedy was spot on and the timing was perfect. When John Winger and Russell Zisky (Murray & Ramis) decide to enlist in the army on a spur of the moment, their basic training experience is actually believable. It could happen. I could relate. If I was as big a guy as John Candy, playing the lovable “Ox,” and I was running the obstacle course, yeah…I might run off course uncontrollably into the outer woods. All these guys are completely out of shape. There’s no way we were ever gonna see Rambo here.
Bill Murray might be the leader of this rag tag gang of miscreants but his own material is just very, very funny. Few comedies have such a hilarious opening scene as he does while he escorts a snobby woman to the airport in his cab. He has enough of her, and so everything is put out on the table. The Three Stooges would have smacked a pie in this woman’s face. John Winger decides to terrify her with some action photos while he drives. To date, no one has ever come close to duplicating this scene.
Winger continues with his rebellion against his Drill Sargent played by Warren Oates who is terrific in his own right. Oates convincingly comes off as straight army material amid all of these nitwits. He can give a facial expression that says a thousand words.
John Candy is a huge highlight in perhaps his breakthrough cinematic performance. Ramis and Reitman wrote a great character in Ox. I think it’s hilarious that a fat guy thinks the most ideal way to lose weight is to join the army because it’s free with a six to eight week work program. We all love to see that it eventually occurs to Ox that basic training in the Army is not exactly a weight watchers program. A major highlight is when Winger rushes Ox into a mud wrestling ring at an adult club. Pure slapstick fun. You can’t help but laugh.
I’m surprised to see that many took issue with the film’s second half. I loved it as the platoon has to pursue Winger and Ziskey who have a special RV that the army has engineered with more weaponry than a James Bond car. Eventually, this leads to a ridiculous rescue within a Russian occupied Czechoslovakian outpost. It’s a great blend of action and comedy that holds up nearly 40 years later. What’s not to like?
I’ll be honest. I saw “Stripes” when I was 10 or 11, and it actually gave me an education on the current life of what it’s like to be in the Army. Having never enlisted, I’m nevertheless convinced that Warren Oates was an accurate interpretation of what a hard driven Drill Sargeant was like. Because it seemed so genuine, it seemed only fitting that a great comedy could be drawn from resisting that kind of authority. The material in “Stripes” didn’t come off silly or Looney Tunes like. It all seemed natural. The jokes just came alive amid the challenges of entering the Army life.
“Stripes” remains a favorite comedy of mine.