17. Stripes (1981)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Starring: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, P.J. Soles, John Candy, Sean Young, John Larroquette, Judge Reinhold, John Diehl, Conrad Dunn, Joe Flaherty

With all due respect to Bill Murray, I’m much more fond of the films he did before he became a “serious” actor, meaning everything up to and including 1993’s “Groundhog Day.” His movies after that are mostly okay, but really not worth my watching them more than once. I know there’s a lot of “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation” fans who are going to disagree with me there. It’s also probably no coincidence that the ones I enjoy most were also written or co-written by (and usually co-starring) Harold Ramis. One of their very best team efforts is the 1981 military comedy “Stripes.”

John Winger (Bill Murray) is a taxi cab driver who is having the ultimate bad day. In a very short span he manages to lose his job, his car, his apartment and his girlfriend. Acknowledging that his now ex-lover spoke the truth when she said he was “going nowhere,” John figures the only path left for him to take that will make his life mean anything is to join the Army. The scene where he talks his friend Russell (Harold Ramis) into joining with him is downright hilarious. Once they do, however, I find to my surprise that it is neither Murray or Ramis who is the real star of the movie. Perhaps the one thing “Stripes” needed the most was a veteran, non-comedic actor to lend the proper authority. This is greatly personified by Warren Oates as the tough-as-nails drill instructor Sgt. Hulka.

From the moment that Hulka and Winger meet, you know there’s going to be animosity. Hulka isn’t impressed by Winger’s joking nature and rebellious attitude, and Winger sees little connection between carrying out menial tasks and training to become a soldier. My favorite scene in “Stripes” comes when the tension between these two reaches its boiling point. Sgt. Hulka has just disciplined the entire platoon because certain members were out after curfew, and only Russell has stepped forward to admit it. Hulka invites Winger into the head where he tries to goad Winger into striking him. The answer is no. Sgt. Hulka removes his hat, a symbol of his rank and position, and repeats the challenge with a few added insults. Winger finally tries to hit Sgt. Hulka in the face, but Hulka sidesteps him and gives him a breathtaking punch to the gut. This is the turning point, because from here on out it is Winger’s journey to learn self-discipline and leadership skills.

Warren Oates had a long and distinguished career. I particularly enjoy him as the racist deputy in 1967’s Best Picture Winner “In the Heat of the Night,” and as the title character in “Dillinger.” But “Stripes” is where I first met him. Odd, since this was one of Oates’ last roles before his death, exactly one day after my birth, on April 3rd, 1982. Other actors in the cast were making this their first breakthrough role in their short careers, among them Harold Ramis, John Larroquette, Sean Young, Judge Reinhold, and John Candy. But although Murray and Ramis are listed as the movie’s leads, it’s Oates who really takes command here. I do have to wonder what sort of chemistry he would have had with the film’s original intended stars. “Stripes” only became available to Murray and Ramis after Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong had expressed the desire for complete creative control, a compromise which director Ivan Reitman was unwilling to make.

As for Bill Murray, I count John Winger as my second favorite of his film characters. For my favorite, he would trade the machine gun for the proton pack, and the Communists for the paranormal…

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