When Bill Murray came on the scene at the start of the 1980s, he represented a fundamental shift in comedy. He specialized in an utter emotional detachment from any and all situations. His fans claimed he was deconstructing the absurdity of whatever predicament he found himself in. The famous Saturday Night Live sketch of Murray as a lounge act performer singing about Star Wars was funny because he knew how pathetic the guy was. Murray did nothing but asides and put-ons. Some critics praised him as a Groucho Marx type, but if you looked closely, some of his lines had a nasty streak; while Groucho took the air out of a tense situation, Murray made you tense.
Performers like Jack Nicholson, Richard Pryor, even Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS., specialized in upsetting the status quo, speaking up for those who couldn’t speak, and expressing suspicion of those in power, Murray spoke for himself, suspicious of everyone. The most courteous thing he would do is not remind you that he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s almost impossible for Murray to do sincerity. His worst scene as an actor? His plea for goodwill toward your fellow man at the end of Scrooged. He’s like a bully telling you to be kind to others or else.
Murray became a comic hero pretty quickly. He gave the genial summer-camp comedy Meatballs a groovy anarchic charge. Along with Rodney Dangerfield, he was the highlight of the surprise hit Caddyshack. But it wasn’t until the release of Stripes in the summer of 1981 that Murray became a star. A service comedy that was surprisingly reverential toward the military, Stripes was the kind of anti-Establishment comedy that appealed to audiences. It was safely subversive but not offensive.
Directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, along with Harold Ramis, Stripes had the kind of anti-authority attitude that even conservatives could get behind. Rather than trashing institutions like the military, the movie just made the individuals in power look comically foolish. This was a big change from the thinking of just a decade earlier. At that time, young people questioned the nature of long-standing institutions far more aggressively. (It’s interesting to note that Stripes was originally conceived as a vehicle for Cheech and Chong. They truly didn’t trust institutions.) Now, it seemed, a compromise was being reached as Stripes predicted the coming onslaught of pop militarism in American movies. Just six months before the release of Stripes, Goldie Hawn had scored a hit (and an Oscar nomination) with the post-feminist service comedy Private Benjamin. Now we had Stripes. Throughout the 1980s, a whole series of movies did a brilliant job of allowing us to forget the trauma of Vietnam. Uncommon Valor, An Officer and a Gentleman, Missing in Action, Firefox, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Heartbreak Ridge, Aliens, Iron Eagle, Top Gun, RedDawn, Platoon Leader, and Commando all suggested, in one way or another, that Vietnam was a winnable battle. A lot of these movies were outrageously entertaining. They were also cinematic recruitment posters. (Oliver Stone’s Platoon would single-handedly provide the antidote to Hollywood’s love affair with war.)
The opening of Stripes indicates it’s going to both play with and poke gentle fun at images of authority. The first image we see is a commercial for the Army playing on a television. Murray’s John Winger views the commercial with a mix of skepticism and (possible) curiosity. Murray’s trademark ironic detachment surfaces with his first line of dialogue. (“I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.”) Winger is so blasé about life that when his girlfriend leaves him, he looks as if he is just going through the motions of being hurt. When Winger says, “Then, depression,” we laugh: If a Murray character is depressed, that would suggest he was once happy.
(Murray aficionados will no doubt know that Joel McHale’s character on Community is an homage to the stock Murray character. The difference being is that McHale’s Jeff Winger genuinely does care about his studymates.)
Luckily for the movie Murray’s coolness is tempered by Harold Ramis as his loyal best friend Russell. When Winger decides to join the Army because, frankly, he has nothing else to do, Russell accompanies him almost for the intellectual exercise of seeing where this will lead them. Or, in the parlance of Animal House, one stupid gesture deserves another. What gives the movie its zip is the comic spin given to standard basic-training scenes. There’s a less abrasive National Lampoon/MAD Magazine quality to some of the gags. There’s also a surprising sense of reverence toward the military, particularly in a shot at dusk where the platoon is going through an obstacle as they sing a recruitment song. Bill Butler’s crisp cinematography makes it clear this shot is not meant to be ironic. On the other end of the shot is the famous scene of the men marching and singing Manford Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” as a cadence. (It is said that after the release of Stripes this became a popular cadence.) What you get with that bit is the acknowledgement of rock & roll’s place in the military.
Sgt. Hulka gives the movie’s situational comedy some weight. It was a masterstroke to cast Warren Oates as Hulka. He represents authority, but not totalitarian authority. He has Winger’s number the moment he sees him. He understands the impulse to question people in power. (He does it himself.) But he also knows that some semblance of order is needed to sustain life. Murray’s best scene is when Sgt. Hulka calls him out on his bad attitude and the audience ultimately comes to side with Sgt. Hulka.
From that point on, Murray’s performance picks up. The scene where he takes the guys to a mud wrestling contest has a playful three-ring circus quality. (The sequence is helped tremendously by John Candy’s wonderfully light comic presence.) When Murray is called upon to deliver an inspirational speech (a staple of 80s movies), he makes it off-kilter enough that he almost sounds convincing. It’s a jingoistic speech with a little sting. (“We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1!”)
The movie climaxes, of course, with an action sequence, as Winger, Russell, and their MP girlfriends must enter enemy territory (Germany and Czechoslovakia!) to rescue their fellow soldiers. Like the parade finale of Animal House, this sequence is about destruction, but it ALSO works as an action set-piece. Stripes toys with AN anti-authority stance but ultimately adheres to tradition. And at the center is Murray, thumbing his nose at everyone and everything. In recent years. a generation of filmmakers have found interesting ways to utilize Murray’s limited range of emotions. John McNaughton located Murray’s capacity for menace in the brilliant Mad Dog and Glory, while Wes Anderson maximized Murray’s deadpan detachment by turning him into a terrific supporting actor in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. (When Anderson forced Murray to play a front-and-center character who had to care about others in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the result was both compelling and uneven.) But in the beginning, with Stripes, Murray’s what-me-worry cocky arrogance turned out to mirror both the audience’s and American movies during the 1980s.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.