That Moment In ‘Stripes’ When Winger Rallies The Troops
Stripes is a 1981 comedy about two friends who are dissatisfied with their jobs, so decide to join the army for a bit of fun.
As much as Hollywood has strived to make the military and war as honest and brutal a viewing experience as possible – with many modern films epic, tragic stories of courage and sacrifice – there has also be a little corner of it all reserved for a bit of comedy. From Private Benjamin to Sgt. Bilko to as far back as Charlie Chaplin‘s Shoulder Arms, the big screen has poked plenty fun at the Army.
In 1981, it was Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, teaming up to take a crack, and naturally, given all things considered, it was a pretty substantial hit, earning not only a big payday at the box office but plenty of praise from critics who found the irreverent film a smart and funny take on the genre. That was some 33 years ago, and having watched it again recently, it’s surprising how well it holds up, the writing and direction still edgy and the performances, well, seriously, pretty funny. This was a golden age. Let’s take a look.
The film is directed by Ivan Reitman, who claims he got the idea on the way to the premiere of his recently released film Meatballs, which, unsurprisingly, was co-written by Ramis and starred Murray. Thing was though, he originally pictured none other than the legendary ‘high’ comedy team of Cheech and Chong as stars, though after creative difference nixed that plan, it was on Murray, who got cast. He then refused to work with anyone else but Ramis, despite studio objections, and movie magic was born. The two of course would go on to make the first two Ghostbusters films and Groundhog Day before their infamous split.
That settled, Ramis took to writing the script, along with two others, which, believe it or not, involved Rietman negotiating with the United States Department of Defense to secure a script that would actually promote recruitment. Apparently pleased, the film was given a $10 million budget and access to special military locations, equipment, and labor. Knowing all that, it’s amazing how well-respected the Army really is in this film, especially considering satirical work it is often remembered as.
The story follows John Winger (Murray), who in the course of a few hours, loses his job, his apartment and his girlfriend. Undeterred, he decides he’s got nothing left to lose and so, takes his best friend Russell Ziskey (Ramis) to the local Army recruiter and signs up, heading off to boot camp at Fort Arnold where they meet a ragtag team of misfits under the command of Drill Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates), a by-the-book, tough as nails Army veteran with no patience for screwballs.
By no surprise, Winger is not exactly soldier material and rarely takes it seriously, much to the frustration of Hulka, who sees the care-free recruit spin a lot of influence on the others. Eventually, Winger and Ziskey find some warm company in the arms of Louise Cooper (Sean Young) and Stella Hansen (P. J. Soles), MPs who are smitten with the soldier’s slacker attitudes. How could you not be?
The company is led by Captain Stillman (John Larroquette), who is a selfish, misguided oaf, and his actions lead to well, something not so good for Hulka, forcing him to leave his unit, shall we say, under-supervised. But what we need to know is that before this, Hulka and Winger finally came to blows, in a jarring moment that sorta feels out of place given the tone of the movie, but is crucial in developing the dynamic between these two characters, one that would be echoed the following year in Richard Gere‘s An Officer and a Gentleman, though admittedly with a decidedly different tone. Either way, the men are without a leader, and so naturally, they band together and commit themselves to becoming all they can be. How? Well, by giving up and heading to a bar with mud-wrestling women. Someone has to do it. This leads to Sillman crashing the party and threatening them with no choice but to repeat basic training.
Luckily for Winger and Ziskey, the girls get them out of the bar in time, and ‘celebrate’ with them all night elsewhere, but when the guys return to the barracks, they find their fellow soldiers in desperate straits, none feeling they can complete graduation and worse, not looking forward to doing it all again. Time for some inspiration. Cue the speech.
Much like his Tripper in Meatballs, who pumps up the campers to take on their rivals, Winger swings into action, looking to rally the men with some choice words about the history of the American soldier, dogs, and the need to stop worrying about what the rules say they should do. He starts by defining their differences, saying that they are not Watusi, a reference most likely to the 1959 film of the same name about a dangerous African tribe of guardians, then adds Spartans, another famous army of underdog warriors, before settling on ‘Americans’ with a capital ‘A’. He explains that this means something, that their forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world, making them the wretched refuse, or in broader terms, the world’s mutts. They are dogs, and what are dogs? The most loyal, faithful, and most loveable. Can’t argue with that.
When he goes on to say that they are all mutants, having made the mistake of joining this man’s army, he claims that this is what binds them, the thing that they each have in common. Being an American soldier is something special, having been kicking ass for 200 years (“we’re 10 and 1”). He reminds them that they don’t need to worry about Stillman or whether they practiced their drills. All they have to do is be the great American soldier that is in each and every one of them. He rallies them to follow his lead and well, what happens next is one of the coolest moments in a Bill Murray movie, and that’s saying a lot … with a little razzle-dazzle.
What’s particularly good about this moment is how spontaneous it feels, Murray clearly riffing with improv as he goes, something that Reitman admits was a big part of the film. It’s entirely absurd, disjointed, and nonsensical, and yet somehow, he ties it together with a fair share of giggles. He continually punctuates the speech with comparisons to what it means to be in the Army, with lines drawn to loyalty and conformity, and the inevitable fact that being enlisted requires there be ‘something wrong’ with you, a person who is not normal. This unifies the tattered men, they of course, believing themselves misfits already. He caps it with an order to do as he does and say what he says, the ultimate responsibility of any soldier under command. It’s a clever twist.
The inspiring speech before battle or sport is nothing new in entertainment. Heck, Shakespeare was doing it in 1599 with the rousing St Crispin’s Day Speech at the Battle of Agincourt in his play Henry V. Modern movies have almost made it cliché, from Brian’s Song in 1971 and Slap Shot in 1977 to just about any war film throughout the 90s and beyond, so it’s not so hard to think that Rietman and Ramis wouldn’t take a fun jab at it as well. This is another early gem from Murray and again puts roots down on the deadpan, quirky comedic style that would come to define his more successful films. He knows how to control a crowd, and while much about Stripes is truly funny, this call to arms before Army graduation is one to remember. It’s a great cinematic moment.