The first thing the writer on film must do is to confess to all biases, and here is the one that matters the most for me: the 1980s are my least-favorite decade in the history of American film. Masterpieces can be found - masterpieces can be found in any era, of course - but the standard level of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking reached, I think, its lowest level during this period. And it's perhaps not even the case, exactly, that the quality of the filmmaking in the '80s was at a particularly low ebb, but that it was an era of extreme caution and a level of conscious anti-creativity. It is an exaggeratedly safe time in American cinema; but then, it was an unusually conservative time in culturally, in both little-c and big-C senses. The dominance of the anglosphere's politics by Thatcherism and Reaganism doesn't have a one-to-one relationship with the kind of movies being produced - there wasn't exactly a wave of anti-union propaganda or popcorn epics about supply-side economics - but both come from the same general impulse to slowing down and consolidating and trying really hard not to rock the boat. The results, in the political and social and economical spheres, are beyond the scope of this project. But the results in movies were an enormous reliance on the tried-and-true, and an increasingly derivative, formula-driven approach to storytelling and craftsmanship alike that does not make, at any rate, for a terribly exciting cinema culture, even if you can cherry-pick masterpieces here and there, for masterpieces are of course to be found in every era, even among the carefully market-driven Hollywood products of this period. But whereas generic studio shlock from the 1930s, say, has a strong personality and prideful sense of work ethic, and the shlock from the 1960s is visibly desperate and anxious, shlock from the '80s tends to feel as anonymous and forgettable as the movies ever have.

It feels, at a first approximation, like the movies of that time came in one of five basic flavors, and most of these were also a little bit prone to what we would tend to associate with social or political conservatism, in one guise or another: the excruciating prestige dramas that hogged all the awards; glossy fantasy/sci-fi extravaganzas that were only good when Steven Spielberg was involved in making them in some capacity; horror films about implausibly creative violent psychopaths, xenophobic action films in which muscly men with unintelligible accents delivered leaden one-liners while mowing down wave upon wave of faceless henchmen; and puerile comedies about juvenile masculinity. The last of these are in some ways the most interesting cases, since they are the only ones to overtly espouse any kind of anti-establishment anarchism (a different thing from the low-simmering paranoia of government found in many action films), an inheritance no doubt from the single movie whose success largely established the genre: 1978's Animal House, which had more focused anti-social rage than the genial, sloppy movies which came in its wake. Not that they're political manifestos; political commitment has never been common in commercial American cinema, even when they openly bring in politics.

Nor can one imagine a film that should have more to say about the current state of the world, while simultaneously going almost visibly out of its way to avoid saying any of it than Stripes, one of the biggest films of 1981, and certainly the most important release outside of Animal House itself in definitively stating, "this is how we're going to make comedy now" - and to some degree, we've never quite stopped. The loosey-goosey plotting and especially the open and constant reliance on improvisation and riffing to build character and flesh out jokes is still very much with us; tightly-constructed and streamlined comic racecars still exist, as they still existed in the '80s, but never anywhere close to to quantity that existed in the '30s or '40s. Instead, the jokey, "let's just all hang out and have fun" vibe of Stripes is still found in virtually all of the comedies successful enough to penetrate the mainstream at all: the films of Judd Apatow and his many, many colleagues and spiritual descendants which dominate 2010s film comedy are cut from exactly the same cloth as Stripes, right down to a 2005 DVD release of this movie that added footage to take it up to a puffy 124 minutes of scenes plugged in because they're enjoyable on their own, not because they are in any way the result of discipline of any kind. And it should be noted that Stripes director Ivan Reitman has always seemed a little ashamed of the baked-in messiness of his big breakthrough picture, even in its cleaner 106-minute cut; this is perhaps why his son has specialised in directing rather more trimly constructed, script-driven comedies in the 21st Century.

As I started out saying, though, Stripes would have ever reason to be a deeply political film, and it was eleven years earlier when the same broad concept was turned into MASH: two jokey fuck-ups get involved in the straitlaced world of the U.S. Army, turning it into a sexually charged-up funhouse. Part of the difference is obvious: MASH was made during one major war and set during another, both of which heavily relied on conscription to fill the ranks of the military, while Stripes is a product of peacetime with a volunteer army. The early '80s were, to be fair a period of higher Cold War tension than was common, but it honestly probably wouldn't have mattered if the Soviet Union and the United States were about to engage in open nuclear war the weekend that the film entered production: it uses the military as a pretext, and only a flimsy one at that, much as the 1941 Abbott and Costello vehicle Buck Privates (yet another duo of jokey fuck-ups end up in the Army). Some films just don't care about geopolitics, not when they can have light-touch clowning.

And Stripes, at least, has plenty of that. It was the film that sealed the deal on Bill Murray, Movie Star, the year after the hit Caddyshack featured him as arguably the most instantly-memorable figure in its ensemble cast, and two years after the smaller success of Meatballs (also directed by Reitman, with most of its writing team brought on for Stripes as well)) showed that he had the chops to carry a feature. More to the point, it proved that a thing which we could fairly call "a Bill Murray picture", regardless of the director and credited writers, could be a great big deal that struck a nerve with vast portions of America. For Stripes very unmistakably is a Bill Murray picture: it is driven by a tone of just-hanging-out sarcasm that was already characteristic of the comedian's persona in '81, and later years have only served to confirm that yes, this is exactly the kind of movie that happens when everybody else mutually agrees to stay the hell out of Murray's way: Reitman, who first came up with the idea as a potential Cheech & Chong vehicle, allowed the actor to re-shape the material completely, bending scenes around his off-the-cuff witticisms; Harold Ramis (the director and co-writer of Caddyshack, and a writer on Animal House and Meatballs as well as Stripes itself) was cast as the co-lead in no small part because his longstanding friendship with Murray made it easier for him to instantly jump on Murray's improvisatory wavelength.

And so the film we have is a shaggy dog, all the plot logic and character detail you could hope for being junked in favor of letting Murray lead the way in a series of comic riffs punctuated with a few scenes of broad slapstick, a couple moments of jarring laddish smut ("You know how you can tell that the villain is a prick? Because he stares at naked women showering! These naked women, right here. That we are showing to you. The naked ones."), and, in a scene where the stereotypical happy & fat Army recruit played by John Candy mud-wrestles with several topless women, slapstick and laddish smut occupying the same space. It's absolutely and unmistakably a hang-out movie, where its value relies entirely the audience enjoying the chance to watch Murray's John Winger and Ramis's Russell Ziskey be quippy and thumb their noses at the hapless authority figures played by Warren Oates (as the grumpy one with a secret warm spot for these troublemakers) and John Larroquette (as the shrill, irredeemable asshole). If Stripes is better than the average "sarcastic guy tees off the stuffed-up antagonist, while making leering comments about women" comedy of the same period - and not only is it above-average, I'd say it's very close to being the best of the lot - this owes a lot to that same Murrayness, for even at his most peremptory (and Murray certainly has the capacity to be a know-it-all jerk in his comedy), Murray has a level of erudition and fast-thinking that's not found in most of the lowbrow comedy that Stripes is obliged, through genre and chronology, to rub shoulders with.

It is, mind you, eminently improvable: Reitman's ability to shape a movie around Murray rather than let him simply go off and take the movie with him hadn't fully formed, and their next collaboration, 1984's Ghostbusters, represents an extremely long step forward from Stripes in showcasing how to allow Murray room to explore, invent, and even dominate the overall tone of a film, while also making sure that he is contained within the limits of that film. Stripes doesn't manage this: even by the relaxed standards of comedy, it's hard to square the flippant irreverence of the Murray-Ramis school of "I'm better than you" humor with the training camp setting, which is too divorced from even the cartoon military environment of something like Buck Privates to justify itself - the film is wedged into a military setting, but the stars and the tone of the writing never take that setting seriously, and it never remotely resembles any kind of objective reality. This, in turn, proves deadly when the film leaves basic training and heads to Europe, where the boys get involved with an experimental tank that looks like an RV, and eventually end up having to execute a daring rescue. The narrative drive is too focused to permit the same loose humor that the first hour of the film boasted; in turn, the looseness of that hour means that absolutely nothing has prepared the film for the sudden escalation in (relative) seriousness and actual Cold War dramatic stakes. There's a solid 20 minute chunk of the movie that simply doesn't work at all: low-budget action awkwardly cut with Murray one-liners as an exact template for the terrible third act of damn near every action-comedy set around the Iron Curtain for the whole decade to follow. And the Reitman who so successfully married shaggy comedy to effects-driven action in Ghostbusters was also a very different, stronger filmmaker than the one we see here.

Problematic though it is, Stripes benefits immensely from being graded on a curve: it's no Ghostbusters, but it's no Police Academy either. The shagginess and smuttiness alike both feel like they're coming out of something that the filmmakers actually thought would be interesting and tethered to the characters, and not simply something that filled a marketing need. It's the kind of film whose success is entirely a function of the viewer's ability to get on the same wavelength as the filmmakers, which does entail some smugness, sexism, and political agnosticism. But at the same time, Murray's laconic energy is hard to deny, and while I do not personally count Stripes a personal favorite, it's not hard to see why it has remained a gateway drug for a certain era of casual ad hoc lowbrow comedy.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1981
-George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Gog and Magog of the new blockbuster age, join forces to make the practically perfect popcorn adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark
-The slasher movie officially explodes with the first wave of Friday the 13th knock-offs hitting theaters, among them Friday the 13th, Part 2
-John Derek's "movie" exploiting his wife Bo, Tarzan, the Ape Man, saves us from ever again having to wonder what the all-time worst Tarzan movie is

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1981
-George Miller's Mad Max 2, AKA The Road Warrior, proves to be Australia cinema's unlikely ambassador to the world at large, and invents a new genre along the way
-West German director Wolfgang Petersen scores an enormous international hit with the submarine epic Das Boot
-Hungarian animation has a banner year, with the release of both Vuk (The Little Fox) and Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare)