A man alone; man against the world; man against himself – all very powerful themes explored in Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and A Gentleman (1982); a mid-budget drama that no one seemed to have faith in. By the time Hackford began shooting exteriors at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, the screenplay by Douglas Day Stewart had been shopped around the Paramount lot for eight years; enough time for the project to grow legs and definitely grow on Hackford, who saw it more as an ensemble piece rather than a pro-military propaganda flag-waver for its star, Richard Gere. In fact, the U.S. military wanted absolutely nothing to do with the film, even denying Hackford access to any of their bases. But Port Townsend, with its perfectly preserved barracks - a holdover from the Civil War – set against the backdrop of a small town in very steep decline, was only too eager to oblige.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the military refused Hackford their blessing. An Officer and a Gentleman is hardly a glorification of its training precepts but rather a gritty – occasionally seedy – little drama that takes the hard-edged approach to breaking in (or simply breaking) new cadets; most of whom will have their dreams of a career with the US military shattered before their eleven weeks of basic training have come to a close. Yet the crux of the story really isn’t about the military at all, but rather a man lost within his own time; desperate even in his search to establish his sense of self. That man is Zack Mayo (Richard Gere), a drifter who as a boy (played by Tommy Petersen) witnessed the suicide of his mother. Afterward Zack went to live with his estranged father, Byron (Robert Loggia); a notorious womanizer and drunkard who dragged Zack halfway around the world while he continued to exploit his position as a U.S. Navy chief boatswain's mate to procure his own dalliances with various Korean prostitutes. Put bluntly, Zack didn’t have much of an upbringing. Nor did he come away with a very high opinion of what it means to be a part of the U.S. military; an understandable disdain that curiously translates into Zack’s defiant enlistment into the Navy's Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) to become a pilot.
Forewarned by Byron that the AOCS will break him, Zack is determined to prove his father wrong. But his introduction to the base is hardly encouraging; particularly since head drill instructor Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jr. in an Oscar-winning role) is every bit the unrepentant hard ass utterly determined to weed out the stragglers from the stars; to mold and shape the next generation of Navy pilots by running buckshot over Zack and his fellow enlistees with his own trial by fire. Foley’s tactics border on the sadistic, as when he all but strangles cadet Topper Daniels (David Caruso) during a wrestling match, simply to illustrate how unsympathetic the enemy can be during hand-to-hand combat. The trainees come to fear Foley early but also – as time passes – to regard him as something of a rigid cliché.
Despite being one of Foley’s personal favorite whipping boys, Zack (whom Foley has nicknamed ‘mayonnaise’) excels at his physical fitness training – setting standards for the rest of the group, particularly Casey Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher) who Foley has berated as a cry-baby ‘princess’ because of her inability to scale a wall during one of the obstacle courses, but who is encouraged by Zack to achieve this goal before their eleven weeks draw to a close. Zack is a loner – cool and calculating. He doesn’t have much regard for people in general. But who can really blame him? His heart was broken at an early age. Still, Zack finds a true friend in Sid Worley (David Keith); a cadet from a very wealthy family who has enlisted to live up to the memory of his late brother and make his parents proud. The understated theme in the film is that one must live life according to his/her own likes and not simply attempt to muddle through it to please the world around them. This, Zack already knows. He’s come to the AOCS not to emulate his father or even to prove him wrong, but quite simply because he has nowhere else in this dead end life to go.
Sid helps Zack cheat on his academic studies and Zack keeps Sid in bootlegged contraband; making a tidy little profit by bribing and selling his stash of polished shoes and shiny belt buckles to the rest of the company right under Foley’s nose. Foley warns his trainees about poor girls from the city who come to the base with dreamy-eyed prospects of landing themselves an officer for a husband by any means of deception. The warning is moot, however, after Zack and Sid meet Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger) and Lynette Pomeroy (Lisa Blount) at a Navy-hosted dance. The girls work in a nearby factory that produces paper bags. From the onset it’s transparently obvious that both Lynette and Paula want what Foley has forewarned. Lynette confesses to Paula that she’s thought of breaking a condom to help her become pregnant and thus force the unsuspecting cadet to marry her – a prospect Paula confesses she has never entertained. After all, Paula knows too well what heartache means. Her mother, Esther (Grace Zabriskie) – also a factory worker - had Paula out of wedlock with a cadet she was in love with many years ago – a man who walked away from his responsibilities, leaving Esther to marry a trucker, Joe (Victor French) instead.
Paula and Zack, and, Lynette and Sid enjoy casual trysts inside a seedy motel not far from the base. Privately, Sid confesses to Zack that he cannot wait for basic training to end so that he can go home and marry another girl; a childhood sweetheart he has absolutely no compuction about being unfaithful and who has been patiently waiting for his return. Zack is mildly disgusted by the callous way Sid appears to be using Lynette, and this causes him to reexamine his own feelings toward Paula – emotions he is as yet incapable of decrypting without also feeling like a heel. So Zack leaves Paula dangling. Besides, he has bigger problems.
Foley has been riding him mercilessly, chiding Zack for not being a team player. After Foley discovers Zack’s contraband hidden in the barracks ceiling he decides to haze Zack for an entire weekend; committed to make him DOR (Drop on Request). This, however, is not so easily accomplished. In fact, the more Foley pushes him the more Zack stubbornly digs in and refuses to buckle under the pressure. Unable to break Zack’s resolve, Foley tells him he intends to simply throw him out. Zack breaks down, confessing that he has nowhere else to go and Foley – in an uncharacteristic moment of compassion, perhaps satisfied that Zack has discovered something about himself – takes pity on Zack, allowing him to continue in the program.
Paula takes Zack home to meet her family. Esther is kind and accommodating, but Joe can barely contain his contempt – perhaps bitterly and even more astutely recognizing a cruel irony of history likely to repeat itself with Paula, just as it had with Esther and her lover so many years before. After this awkward dinner Zack does, in fact, allow his romance with Paula to cool. But he also discovers his own humanity. Thus when faced with the possibility of breaking an all-time record for covering the obstacle course – Zack instead helps Seeger scale the twelve foot wall – something she has thus far been quite unable to do, thereby sparing her the indignation of being disqualified by Foley and sent packing.
In the meantime, Lynette has begun dropping hints to Sid that she might be pregnant. Unable to reconcile his true feeling about his own future Sid suffers a sudden anxiety attack during a high-altitude simulation in a pressure chamber. Resigning from the base, but with a moment of clarity he is certain will be met with enthusiasm, Sid hurries to Lynette’s with a newly bought wedding ring, determined to make an honest woman of her. Regrettably, Lynette confesses that she was never pregnant and furthermore breaks Sid’s heart after learning he has DOR-ed by chastising him for being weak. Lynette wants to marry an officer – period - not some guy whose destiny will likely be as a department store clerk at J.C. Pennys.
Disillusioned and distraught, Sid returns to the motel where he and Lynette had spent many a night in each other’s arms. He swallows the returned engagement ring with a forty-ouncer and then hangs himself in the shower where he is later discovered in the nude by Zack and Paula. Consumed with anger over the loss Zack confronts Foley, challenging him to a fight inside the training hanger. The men spar, using their martial arts training to inflict a relentless series of body blows on each other. Foley offers the decisive blow by kicking Zack in the groin, perhaps because he has wisely assessed that without this deliberate cheat he might not win the fight and therefore lose face with the rest of the cadets. At the end of their match Foley garners a newfound respect for Zack’s resolve, refusing to let him DOR so close to graduation. At commencement Zack enjoys the fruits of his hard won labor with his fellow cadets.
Following a naval tradition Zack receives his first salute from Foley in exchange for a US silver dollar. While tradition calls for the drill instructor to place this dollar in the left shirt pocket, Foley instead places it in his right, a subtle – though poignant - acknowledgment he has come to regard Zack as his very special trainee. Officially ‘Ensign’ Mayo, Zack arrives at the factory in his gleaming navy whites, surprising Paula by sweeping her off her feet – literally – and carrying her away, presumably to be his wife, as the rest of the coworkers, including Esther and Lynette, cheer her on with pride; Zack having finally learned what it means to be both an officer and a gentleman.
This last scene was the subject of much consternation. Producer Martin Efland and Richard Gere did not want to shoot it; each raising similar concerns over its fairytale-like quality becoming rather cliché. To his credit, director Hackford took their indignation under advisement; then, encouraged Gere to suit up and do the scene – perhaps still unsure of whether or not it would make it into the final cut. But then a curious verisimilitude occurred on the set. The real-life factory workers who had come to partake as background began to weep real tears and cheer loudly. After that, Hackford knew the scene had to remain in the film.
Fueled by the Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes’ duet ‘Up Where We Belong’ – An Officer and a Gentleman went on to gross more than $129,795,554 making it an unqualified smash hit – the third highest grossing movie of the year. Viewed today, An Officer and a Gentleman remains a potent bit of story-telling, primarily because its central theme of downtrodden individuals conquering their fears despite emotional and psychologically crippling adversities is a perennial of the human condition. As such the film has hardly dated. Certainly, it remains the best, and arguably, most ‘unrehearsed’ piece of acting Richard Gere ever committed to film. In Gere’s Zack there emerges something more than the steely-eyed rebel or defiant loner; a greater self-awareness for the character that continues to draw out our empathy.
Louis Gossett Jr.’s unrepentantly obnoxious drill sergeant may seem a tad over the top in retrospect, but only because since his iconic and trend-setting performance we’ve seen far too many knock offs; thinly disguised likenesses in other movies that ante up the brutishness but fail to depict more subliminal motivations. Gossett’s Foley is neither a demigod nor a tyrant but rather an earthly ‘maker of men’ – real men – who are molded not as gently as clay but rather from that unrestrained pounding of hammer and tong against the crude metal from which a more resilient figure in bronze will emerge. The other outstanding performance – less flashy than Gossett’s though no less important – belongs to Debra Winger; an actress sadly underrated these days, primarily because she proved to have a temperament that branded her a ‘difficult actress’ and cut her own career prematurely short. Winger is hardly ‘his gal Friday’ in An Officer and a Gentleman, but the lynchpin in Zack’s emotional maturity.
The ending, where Zack sweeps Paula off her feet, has oft’ been referenced for its Cinderella-esque quality. Yet, Winger’s Paula was never the damsel in distress or that proverbial ‘little girl lost’, seeking redemption in the arms of a man – any man. Winger plays to her own inner strengths as a woman to balance the outer weakness of her character. In many ways, Paula knows better than Zack what she wants out of life and what her chances are at getting it. She is also able to recognize her own shortcomings, while being impenitent of either. The question in the final reel is therefore ‘who’ is saving ‘who’ because in her own understanding way Paula has managed to save Zack from himself; rescue him from his selfishness; awakening the man that until her arrival in his life was still very much that frightened/disillusioned boy living in the shadow of his own father’s failings as both an officer and a man.
Owing to an acquisition from Paramount, Warner Home Video debuts An Officer and A Gentleman on Blu-ray in a stunning 1080p transfer. Truly, a rewarding effort has been put forth on this disc, not merely on the transfer but also in the extra features. The ‘wow’ factor is here. Colors are robust and vibrant with very lush greens and superiorly rendered flesh tones. The image is razor-sharp. Fine details pop and contrast is handled with care. Best of all, the image is very clean while retaining its grain structure. Fans of this movie can also look forward to a new 5.1 DTS audio that, while dated, nevertheless gives new life to the soundtrack. Even better, Warner has stoked this disc with rewarding extras; five featurettes on the making of the movie and revisiting its locations with meaningful recollections from cast and crew 31 years later. We also get an audio commentary and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)