Thursday, 26 March 2015


Bill Murray is a genius and steven harris remembers a film that most have forgotten...
In 1981 did Harold Ramis (and Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg) decree that a movie about two ne'er do wells joining the army should be scripted then directed by Ivan Reitman. And Ramis was to star alongside his friend and later Ghostbusters collaborator, Bill Murray.

It's not exactly a satire but it's not exactly a film that glorifies war either. It's some silliness based around a specific social setting, much as the early Carry On films were slightly more worthy parodies of certain jobs and jobsworths than the later innuendo-fests they became.

Stripes boasts a monkey-barrel brimming with early, even debut appearances by actors who went on to own the 80s. Murray and Ramis were probably the kings of this gang. Well, democrat bossmen, this being non monarchical America. Familiar names such as John Candy and Judge Reinhold and Sean Young have smaller but significant roles but none of the good jokes.

There aren't belly laugh jokes as such. It's a subtler screenplay than that, a character-based situation comedy, if you like. Or even if you don't like. The initial humour comes from Murray and Ramis's characters failing to subdue their curveball personalities in the face of military training. Later, when they are at least conversant with marching and holding guns, the comedy is driven more by slapstick action, some explosions and a bit of swearing.

No, it's not sophisticated. No it's nowhere near a funny or inventive as Ghostbusters but it is an intriguing vignette detailing Murray's first steps towards perfecting the lugubrious, down-at-heel, lovable loser he has made a career out of playing ever since.

The platoon's Sergeant-Major is played to swaggering perfection by Warren Oates, an actor whose CV includes Peckinpah's TheWild Bunch as well as Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. The SM is not a monster as seen in later, grittier 80s war movies like Platoon or Hamburger Hill. He's a tough bastard but a warm enough character to ensure audience sympathies are with him when the hapless platoon commander accidentally sends a mortar straight at Oates.

Amongst the cameos in the ensemble cast two stand out. Bill Paxton (Apollo 13, Twister, Weird Science) is a twatty grunt and John Diehl clearly looks authentic enough in uniform for Roland Emmerich to cast him as Sergeant Kowalsky in Stargate some thirteen years later.

There are some mud-wrestling women in a strip joint and a few bare breasts in shot for no apparent narrative reason but perhaps Ramis was still recycling material he'd rejected when writing National Lampoon's Animal House. Or it was the very early eighties and bare breasts were added into movies to give them a higher rating in cinemas. If that seems odd in an age when directors are trying to cut out enough sex or violence to ensure a younger audience can attend screenings you need to realise that in the 70s and 80s an adult rating was a badge of honour. Also, cinemas themselves were far less rigidly policed and underage kids could sneak into Scum, Caligula and the like without too much hassle. I know, I was one of those kids.

The closest comparison for this movie are the Police Academy films made later in the decade but it's not an especially strong comparison. The Police Academy franchise stacks cheap laughs high and dispenses with any subtleties when it comes to characterisation. They're stuffed with stereotypes and one-dimensional figures with singular quirks of personality. While Stripes is far from being one of Hollywood's finest army films it is at least more complex and less patronising than Steve Guttenberg wandering around amidst a bunch of special needs officers who can beatbox, or drop guns, or generally fail to do any actual policing.

The biggest treat is the appearance of the already mentioned Sean Young. A year later she would be found portraying Deckard's noir-esque replicant love interest in Bladerunner, a role filled with pomposity and, if onset rumours are to be believed, an genuine animosity for Harrison Ford. the treat here is to see her playing things for laughs, to see her wide, infectious smile erupt from the screen. Yes she's classy in Bladerunner but she's out of your league, pal. In Stripes she's a perfectly

Images from IMDB

steven harris is adverse to putting his name in capitals because names aren't that important. Also, lower case is sexy. steven writes all sorts of stuff including fiction, poetry, songs, opinion pieces and shopping lists. He does not write on lavatory doors any more. his blog has writing in it and can be located at He lives in Devon with an imaginary cat called Kafka.

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