We live in a time when war movies based on toys (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) are better received by the public than those that have a basis in truth (The Hurt Locker). G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, out on DVD and Blu-ray today, dances around its origins as military action figures by positioning its heroes as an elite unit, more like well-armed spies than anything resembling common soldiers. The aim appears to be similar, though: provide heroic figures that inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
Back in the 80s, movies that could be mistaken for recruitment propaganda became surprisingly common. The film industry, which had firmly resisted anything related directly to the Vietnam War while it was being waged, became schizophrenic in the 80s, releasing anti-war and pro-war flicks side by side into theaters. Here are seven key films, listed chronologically, that helped shape the public's perception of the military during that decade.
Private Benjamin (1980)
Nancy Meyers began here, co-writing and co-producing the tale of Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn), a bride who wears black after her husband (Albert Brooks) dies on their wedding night. A spoiled woman-child, Judy enlists in the armed forces; basic training toughens her up as she realizes she can deal with the rigors of military life. As a budding feminist, she still had miles to go to learn that she didn't need a man or the military to be all she could be; as a poster child for plucky women in the armed forces, Private Benjamin was a positive-reinforcement milestone.
Bill Murray as a buck private may have been every career soldier's worst nightmare. Lazy, out of shape, unmotivated, and goofing on everything the military holds sacred, Murray would seem to be the perfect candidate to drop out of basic training at the first available opportunity. Instead, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates) whips him and the other ne'er do wells into shape, their esprit d'corps so high that they carry on, in their own fashion, after their tough but lovable sergeant is laid low. Murray, John Candy, and Harold Ramis made joining the military look like a character-building lark.
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Talk about great acting: Richard Gere and Debra Winger steamed up movie theaters with their seductive sex scenes, even as the two actors reportedly despised each other. But it was Louis Gossett Jr. who walked away with an Academy Award for his role as Sgt. Foley, who whipped Gere and other fellow ne'er do wells into shape. Depressingly retrograde in its view of romance, complete with women trying to "trap" men with pregnancy, the film fortified the idea that the military could take good-looking people and make them even more attractive by training them to think of others before themselves. Oh, and carry the girl out of the dreary factory in grand romantic fashion.
Red Dawn (1984)
John Milius extolled the virtues of military training by imagining that the survival of American values might be dependent on a rag-tag group of scraggly kids in the aftermath of a Russian invasion. Subversively, Milius wasn't proposing that the answer lay in the military itself, but in guerrilla warfare carried out under the command of well-disciplined citizen soldiers. Rather than serve as a recruitment device for the armed forces, Red Dawn suggested that the best preparation is a forewarned, fore-armed citizenry: no minimum age limit required.
Rambo: First Blood II (1985)
Where First Blood depicted the internal torment of a veteran abandoned by his country -- and wanting nothing more than to be left alone -- the sequel made John Rambo's righteous anger explicit. He's given new motivation for unleashing the ruthless killing machine within, but all that pales beside the simple idea that the Vietnam War could have been won by the "good guys" if only the solders had been allowed to do what they do best, echoing the mission undertaken by Chuck Norris in Missing in Action the year before. Sylvester Stallone was still in the ascendant phase of his career, before an avalanche of inferior action pictures dragged his star back to earth, and as a strong, silent type, Rambo embodied the predominant political values of the day.
Top Gun (1986)
If Rambo made young men yearn to fire machine guns, Maverick's "need for speed" surely inspired future generations of flyboys. Following a familiar trajectory, Maverick (Tom Cruise) must learn to think of others before himself; as with Richard Gere's character in An Officer and a Gentleman, it takes the death of a friend before Maverick comes to his senses. Three years later, Cruise would star in Oliver Stone's anti-war Born on the Fourth of July, but it's his cocky, brash Maverick -- raining death from above in a sleek, speeding, multi-million dollar machine -- that remains a romantic icon.
Heartbreak Ridge (1986)
The military-themed Aliens, released shortly after Top Gun, featured tough-as-nails Marines in space, but it was Clint Eastwood's almost-forgotten Heartbreak Ridge, released shortly before Oliver Stone's Platoon, that took on the peacetime Marines. Clint Eastwood plays Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, a man without a war who is still determined to whip a batch of ne'er do wells into shape. Opportunity finally knocks in Grenada. By then, it's clear that these Marines can't wait to get out. America was tiring on being on a war footing, and the following year would welcome the likes of Full Metal Jacket and Good Morning, Vietnam. Before that happened, Clint Eastwood raised the flag one last time for the military in the 80s.