40 Years Ago: ‘Stripes’ Updates ’70s-Style Comedy for a New Era
Stripes director Ivan Reitman's initial concept was to make a movie about Cheech and Chong enlisting in the Army – and that actually reveals a great deal about the film.
At its weakest moments, Stripes suffers from the same disease that afflicted their stoner comedies: Reitman's movie feels like a bunch of disconnected sketches stuffed uncomfortably into a barely believable story. But at its best, Stripes benefits from something Cheech and Chong never had access to: the immense comedic talent of Bill Murray, and his impeccable chemistry with co-star Harold Ramis.
Released on June 26, 1981, Stripes grew out of an initial script put together by Len Blum and Dan Goldberg. Reitman brought in Ramis after Cheech and Chong demanded complete artistic control, asking Ramis to rewrite the screenplay so that it would work for Murray – and to include a part for himself, as well. The result is an absurd comedic romp that gives both actors plenty of room to play to their strengths.
Murray plays John Winger, a cab driver in New York City. Disillusioned with his job prospects and abandoned by his girlfriend because she thinks he's a loser, he convinces his best friend Russell Ziskey (Ramis), a vocational English teacher, to join the Army with him. The two new recruits soon find themselves in a platoon of misfits, struggling through basic training.
Alongside them are: Ox (John Candy), who joined up because it seemed like a good way to lose weight; Cruiser (John Diehl), whose main attribute is his lack of intelligence; Elmo (Judge Reinhold), your basic drug-loving teenager; and others. There's also a pair of gorgeous military-police officers for Winger and Ziskey to pursue (played by P.J. Soles and Sean Young), a hard-ass sergeant named Hulka (Warren Oates), to whip them into shape, and a daffy Captain (John Larroquette) to serve as a plot foil.
Watch the Original Trailer for 'Stripes'
After some shenanigans in basic training – Hulka gets injured by a stray mortar shell, Ox mud-wrestles a bunch of women in a bar, and (in a scene cut from the original film but included in 2005's expanded DVD re-release) Winger and Ziskey join paratroopers in Latin America while Ziskey is high on LSD – the platoon gets sent to Italy. Their assignment in Europe is to guard a new armored combat Winnebago called the EM-50. When Winger and Ziskey steal this to go visit their MP paramours, Hulka and the rest of the platoon go looking for them and inadvertently stray into Czechoslovakia, where they're captured.
In the end, Winger and Ziskey have no choice but to invade Czechoslovakia in the EM-50 to save their buddies. (Their successful rescue is preceded by an oddly violent combat sequence which Ramis has described as "grinding [an] anti-Communist ax" by Reitman, the son of Czech refugees.) Winger, Ziskey and the rest then return to America as heroes.
Other strange undercurrents run throughout the film. It was made with the assistance of the Army, in hopes that Stripes would help improve the military's image after the disastrous Vietnam War. That leads to the odd spectacle of Murray and Ramis, both pretty devoted anti-establishment types, appearing in a film that celebrates American exceptionalism.
Despite the rewrites, the specters of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong still haunt Stripes. In the initial sequence, Russell Ziskey joins the Army on a lark, for no real reason at all other than that his friend is doing it. This is a bit of character flimflammery that Ramis – who wrote masterpieces like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day – would never have foisted on a character in a script that was original to him. Similarly, there are numerous scenes, like the mud-wrestling, that come directly from the '70s stoner-film habit of including gags that serve no narrative purpose at all – as opposed to the more careful construction of virtually all of Ramis, Reitman, and Murray's later movies.
Watch the Graduation Scene From 'Stripes'
Oddball moments aside, Stripes shines when it allows Murray and Ramis to put their comedic talents on display. Several bits from the film – like the parade-ground sequence – should be included in the canon of Bill Murray's career highlights. Throughout, Murray refines the role of louche-but-intelligent outcast that he would go on to master in so many films in the '80s.
Not to be outdone is Ramis, who plays a kind of absurdist straight-man. He gamely lobs comedic softballs for Murray, while adding in his own touches of silliness – such as his reactions to John Candy's earnest explanation of how he ended up in the Army.
Murray and Ramis play off one another perfectly. From the opening sequence in Murray's apartment to the closing battle, their comedic and acting abilities mesh seamlessly: Not only do they generate laughs, they also display the unquestionable depth of these characters' friendship. There's no better example than Murray's reaction when Ramis' Ziskey realizes that he's accidentally taken LSD on the trip to Latin America from the extended edition.
Stripes is ultimately far more uneven than the best collaborations by Ramis and Murray. But it's still worth revisiting for its high points, and for the way the film links the stoner comedies of the '70s to more artfully crafted narratives of the '80s.