Top 10 Military Comedies
This weekend “The Men Who Stare at Goats” will enter theaters with George Clooney leading an impressive cast (Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Ewan McGregor) behind the curtain for a very strange peek into arguably the most powerful organization around—the U.S. military. Seeing the movie made me think immediately of another great Clooney film that takes a skewed look at the military (see #4). Next thing you know, I had a list. What follows are the Top 10 Military Comedies, but there are a couple of omissions: “Starship Troopers” has been left off due to it’s sci-fi slant and “Good Morning Vietnam” simply didn’t make the cut. Coming up with some military comedies on the other end of the spectrum (Steve Martin’s “Sgt. Bilko,” Damon Wayans’ “Major Payne,” Pauly Shore’s “In the Army Now”) was easy. Anyway, here’s my list of Top 10 Military Comedies. Enjoy!
10. Private Benjamin (1980)
Goldie Hawn plays a spoiled rich girl who joins the Army when her brand new husband (Albert Brooks) drops dead on their wedding night. This movie was a huge hit when it came out, but it hasn’t aged particularly well. It works better as a silly comedy, mostly because of Hawn and co-star Eileen Brennan, who plays her domineering captain. It’s got a pretty standard riches-to-rags story where Hawn comes out a stronger, more independent woman, and the third act romance doesn’t gel with the rest of the film. It still has some pretty inspired comedic moments, though, all coming from the fish-out-of-water setup. “Legally Blonde” owes this movie some serious royalties.
9. Mister Roberts (1955)
Jack Lemmon won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this Navy-based WWII film that was adapted from the 1946 novel and 1948 Broadway play. Henry Fonda headed the hit Broadway play and hadn’t starred in a movie in eight years before this. Ironically, director John Ford—who insisted on casting Fonda in the movie’s lead role too—butted heads with Fonda one too many times and was eventually replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. Watching the film, you wouldn’t know it. (LeRoy even reportedly told the cast he would finish it the way Ford would have.) Fonda, Lemmon, James Cagney, and William Powell (in his last performance) are all stellar, and although its very funny at times, “Mister Roberts” is also a surprisingly thoughtful movie as well.
8. Catch-22 (1970)
“Thoughtful” is about the last word I would use to describe Mike Nichols’ rambling adaptation of the classic Joseph Heller anti-war novel “Catch-22.” Even though its all over the place, the film (written by Buck Henry, who also stars) is pretty hardcore black humor and has lots of genuinely inspired moments. Alan Arkin is a reluctant WWII bombardier who pretends he’s crazy to get out of flying more missions and a huge cast of actors (Orson Welles, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, and Jon Voight) are peppered throughout the flashback-strewn madness. The movie should have connected more with a country knee-deep in a very unpopular war, but audiences flocked to see another anti-Vietnam allegory that year instead (see #6).
7. Stripes (1981)
Ha ha ha ha! Once again, this movie couldn’t be more different than the one before it on this list. A quick-witted slacker (Bill Murray) joins the Army with his best friend (Harold Ramis) after having the worst day ever. Tonally, the film is smart-assed, reckless, and anti-authority rather than staunchly anti-war. Murray makes fun of pretty much everybody he comes in contact with, including superior officer Sgt. Hulka, played by a superchrged Warren Oates. (Shades of “Private Benjamin,” perhaps?) Murray’s calm yet anarchic demeanor carries the entire film, having perfected his lackadaisical loser character, and when he and Ramis steal the top secret Urban Assault Vehicle they are supposed to be guarding to go and visit two pretty female MPs, he somehow comes out on top and ends up saving the day. One commonality with “Catch-22″: an all-star supporting cast (John Candy, Judge Reinhold, John Larroquette, Sean Young, P.J. Soles, Joe Flaherty, Timothy Busfield, and young Bill Paxton in a small role).
6. M*A*S*H (1970)
[Originally appeared on the Top 10 Subversive Comedies list.) Although it is set in Korea, Robert Altman’s anti-establishment comedy was actually a not-so-thinly veiled and pointed attack on the then-raging Vietnam War. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are two military surgeons struggling to maintain their sanity through boozing, sex, and an utter contempt for authority in this cultural watershed movie. Altman’s almost complete disregard for Ring Larder Jr.’s script and his improvisatory style of shooting scared not only the studio, but also the film’s stars. “Donald and Elliott went in about a quarter of the way through the picture and tried to have me fired because they said I was going to ruin their careers,” Altman said. Struggles with the studio finally ceased after a wildly successful preview screening and the movie went on to gross $80 million and signal a new era of filmmaking in Hollywood. Not everyone agrees it’s a classic, though, as one of our user-contributed Top 10 lists had this film at #3 of the Most Overrated Movies.
5. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Some of you may be screaming “Too soon!” Go right ahead. Others may say “It’s not a comedy!” Well, then, I’d like you to explain to me why I was laughing so damned hard every time Brad Pitt opened his mouth. This movie does what Quentin Tarantino does best—blend comedy and drama into one outwardly insane but (upon further examination) very focused piece of entertainment. No one embraces lowbrow and highbrow mentalities at once with the skill that Tarantino does, and this year’s surprise WWII revenge fantasy hit is proof of that. Christoph Waltz will more than likely walk away with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the frighteningly intense Col. Hans Landa, but don’t forget that he and Pitt were also riotously funny as well.
4. Three Kings (1999)
Speaking of a film that blends multiple feels and genres, here’s a freaking great underrated classic with unusual bragging rights. David O. Russell’s black comedy “Three Kings,” set in the bleached sand of post-Persian Gulf War Iraq circa 1991, is successful as a character drama, a comedy, a war picture, a western, a satire, a visceral action film, a heist movie, and a slice of angry political discourse. Like 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes,” it follows a group of soldiers looking for a windfall. In “Three Kings,” it’s Kuwaiti gold bullion and George Clooney gets Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze wrapped up in his scheme. Things go wrong in ways you could never imagine and each man is truly tested. Russell’s on-set battles with Clooney—and just about everybody, it seems—are famous (almost as famous as Ford and Fonda on “Mister Roberts”), so maybe the tension helped. Either way, this is one intense and absurd movie that wants to have it all ways and deserves kudos for succeeding.
3. Duck Soup (1933)
[Originally appeared on the Top 10 Political Movies list.] The last film released by the Marx Brothers under the Paramount studio is also their best. The title was slang for “something that’s easy to do,” and in this case it refers to running a country and starting a war. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed head of a small, bankrupt country called Freedonia who almost immediately declares war. A ridiculous send-up production number called “We’re Going to War” follows. There may not be any grand statement that adds up to much here, but there sure are a ton of little ones that whiz by during the movie’s short running time (about 68 minutes). The Marx Brothers anarchic disregard for all things political make this a more cynical movie than most of their catalog, and an easy one to laugh at these days. Perhaps the non-stop ribbing of a Marx Brothers comedy was too much for audiences to take when it originally came out. The film wasn’t exactly a flop, but it wasn’t the gigantic hit that was expected, coming off the heels of the boys’ previous monster hit, “Horse Feathers.”
2. The Last Detail (1973)
Director Hal Ashby’s best movie starred Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as sailors who must escort a young Randy Quaid to a Naval prison for an unjust eight-year sentence. As they become grow to like the young kid, they show him the ropes of being a man (getting laid, getting in fights, etc.) and get increasingly more angry at the system. This picture is lewdly anti-authority and rightly infamous for giving its characters the kind of potty-mouths that Navy men are supposed to have. Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne (”Chinatown,” “Shampoo”) were also taking full advantage of the then-new MPAA ratings system. Ashby’s jump-cut edits make the film—which has a typical buddy flick structure—seem as edgy as its language is. And Nicholson gives one of his best performances, right between his the famous rebelliousness of his characters from “Easy Rider” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
OK, I understand that Stanley Kubrick’s crack Cold War satire appears at the top of several of my lists. I’m also aware that I have previously mentioned that I need to stop putting it on lists. Yet here it is at number one again. How can that happen, you may ask? Well, can you imagine anything else being number one on this list? Nope? Me neither. Besides the mutually puffed-up and insecure histrionics of the George C. Scott and Peter Sellers in the war room, I will never be able to shake Sterling Hayden’s hilarious and over-the-top General Jack D. Ripper, who said, with the utmost seriousness and intent of purpose: “Today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” It may be set in a very specific time, but the fears “Strangelove” preys on are (unfortunately) eternal.