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An Officer and a Gentleman

*****
1983

‘…a rare film that speaks to men, women and couples in equal measures….’

Was there ever a less overtly romantic film that An Officer and a Gentleman? Sure, it’s a ladies choice due to the presence of Richard Gere, but this ain’t no Pretty Woman rom-com. Rom-coms don’t feature abrupt suicides, or man to man kickboxing confrontations. They don’t get knee-deep in the mud of basic training, with the emphasis on physical punishment and assault courses. They don’t feature a hero who calls his best friend’s girlfriend a ****, or a protagonist who wrestles with a negative view of women caused by growing up in a house of prostitution. All in all, Taylor Hackford’s film isn’t the gossamer confection that lots of soft-soap movies end up as; it’s like the hard-ass, unsentimental movie Top Gun was in the original script.

And that’s all for the better, because by breaking all the rules, An Officer and a Gentleman becomes a genre classic. Zack Mayo (Gere) is introduced staring at some bodies on a bed, intent on the wreckage of his father’s latest threesome. Mayo announces he’s going to join the navy to fly jets, jumps onto his motorcycle and heads off to the nearest base, where his cocky attitude attracts the attention of tough Gunnery sergeant Emil Foley, played in an Oscar-winning, super-abrasive turn by Louis Gossett Jr. The recruits have been warned off consorting with the local ladies, characterised by a desire to get pregnant deliberately to ensnare a husband, but Mayo and buddy Sid Worley (David Keith) find themselves seduced by Lynette (Lisa Blount) and Paula Pokrifi (Debra Winger). The latter strikes sparks with Mayo, but for a young couple in this volatile environment, there are mountains in their way, but they climb a step, every day….

An Officer and a Gentleman is a film that lifts the audience up where they belong; a hard-earned story of self-actualisation where the female characters are smart and have agency, and the male characters learn the error of their ways. Mayo is quite a character; his scam to sell freshly polished buckles and boots to recruits is very untypical of Hollywood heroes, and his punkish attitude takes a long time to settle. His direct conflict with Foley makes up a large part of the narrative; Foley seeks to reduce Mayo to nothing, then rebuild him. ‘I got nowhere else to go’ Mayo screams after Foley physically and mentally trashes him. But Mayo’s redemption is very much via his relationship with the resourceful Paula Pokrifi, who gets both him and his situation, and is prepared to hang tough and be patient to get the relationship she dreams of; the final scene, as Zack rewards Paula by carrying her out of her factory, surrounded by her cheering co-workers, is the kind of natural, iconic moment that few films can muster.

Not Top Gun, not Pretty Woman, nor anything other than a striking recruiting poster with three-dimensional characters, An Officer and a Gentleman is a rare film that speaks to men, women and couples in equal measures. The central couple turns their back on each other at times, but never lose sight of the big prize of love. That the tragic Sid is Mayo’s reflection, full of bluster about love and duty, reveals exactly what our hero fights for; An Officer and A Gentleman is as motivational a proposition as Rocky, but also has a developed, caustic world-view that makes it a salutatory lesson for the ages.

An Officer and a Gentleman is on Netflix UK from July 1st.

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    • Now that is a good shout, American Gigolo is one I loved as a teenager and am keen to return to. Gere kept up with serious parts, I’m always surprised that some people don’t rate him.

  1. This thing was a big movie when I was a lad. We trucked to the single screen cinema in our town and, like a kid with one record, really absorbed every nuance of this tale. Of course, Stripes had just left us all breathless the year before, and O&G had a somewhat different flavor. There are parts of this film that are still etched on my psyche. Never got to do the upside down water tank escape (follow the bubbles).

    • That water tank thing was brutal. Totally unspectacular, but looks real and lethal. I’ve parachuted, and it’s bound to be way easier than withstanding that impact! As you say, it stays with you…

  2. Glad to see this garnered the rarely-award five-star accolade. Just a terrific picture on all counts with surly and arrogant Mayo learning love can salve wounds. Scarcely a better romantic ending to be had in the whole of the Hollywood canon plus a just wonderful theme song.

    • On Netflix in a few weeks, easy to find in DVD. A hugely popular film, but maybe misunderstood. Here’s good looks worked against him in the press, but he pushed through that and showed real range as an actor. He’s convincing here, and although there’s some 80’s empowerment going in, the style is more 70’s Hal Ashby. And that’s good.

    • I can’t believe this film is lumped in with other sappy efforts; it’s tough as old boots.

          • I just meant in general. Sometimes I have a hard time telling from your reviews if the movie is escapist entertainment or a based on real events thing meant to teach us deep and abiding truths.

            Had much boot camp training yourself?

              • A paratrooper!? Death From Above!

                Do you hold an unsheathed razor sharp knife in your mouth when you jump out of the airplane? I bet Gere could do that.

                In a serious vein, I meant did you go through some basic training of some sort or another in a military branch?

    • That’s a very generous thing to say. I guess I’m trying to prise this away from those who think it’s a rom-com and instead, I want to push it towards the satly self-actualisation of the first Rocky movie. I’m sure some will scorn my efforts, but I genuinely think this is a very smart and uncompromising studio movie. And Hackford really deservs credit for this, he’s underrated IMHO. Cheers for this comment!

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