A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (June – Part 2)

Dragonslayer (June 26)
For Your Eyes Only (June 26)
The Great Muppet Caper (June 26)
Stripes (June 26)

In my last post I wrote about how June 1981 could be ranked as one of the all time best movie months based on the quality of the films, their box office success and continued popularity forty years later. Now we’ll dig a little deeper into the best movie month’s best movie weekend with a review of the films released in the U.S. the weekend of June 26th 1981.

The Great Muppet Caper (June 26) was the second feature film in the Muppet franchise, and director (and muppet creator) Jim Henson’s film directorial debut. By 1981 the Muppets franchise was in full swing: their prime time television series The Muppet Show had just completed its fifth and final season, and two years earlier 1979’s The Muppet Movie earned $65 million at the box office. So going into The Great Muppet Caper you know it’ll have the usual cast of beloved characters, catchy tunes, celebrity cameos and humor that is also appreciated by adults. The film begins with reporters Kermit and Fozzie and photographer Gonzo unceremoniously fired from their newspaper jobs for missing the day’s biggest story when a jewel heist occurs practically under their noses. Determined to crack the case, they fly to London (though their tickets didn’t include a proper landing) to interview famous fashion designer Lady Holiday (played by the great Diana Rigg) for information on her stolen necklace. But instead Kermit finds Miss Piggy, who leads Kermit to believe she is Lady Holiday, and it’s love at first sight. While out on their first date at a restaurant (well, actually supper club…), Miss Piggy is framed for the theft of Lady Holiday’s diamond necklace, and Kermit and the gang are determined to get her off the hook. The cast includes Charles Grodin as Lady Holiday’s smarmy brother Nicky, with cameos by John Cleese, Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley. Overall The Great Muppet Caper is still an enjoyable film filled with the troupe’s trademark witty comedy (with that hint of vaudevillian flair), but the story and musical numbers didn’t match the charm of the first film and at times feels like more of a made for TV movie. It earned $31 million at the North American box office against a $14 million budget.

For Your Eyes Only (June 24 UK, June 26 US) was my cinematic introduction to James Bond and is still my favorite film of the franchise. For Your Eyes Only, with the iconic Roger Moore in his fifth turn as Agent 007, has a more grounded, contemporary story compared to Moonraker or The Spy Who Loved Me, without the over the top elements (such as villains with multi billion dollar hideouts or fantastical plots for destruction or domination) that would eventually become cliché and fodder for parody. For Your Eyes Only begins with a stunt filled helicopter sequence in which Bond puts an old nemesis to rest, and he is soon called to action after a British surveillance ship disguised as a fishing boat is destroyed by a forgotten World War II era sea mine and sinks to the bottom of the Ionian Sea off of Albania. Lost in the wreckage is British Intelligence’s ATAC transmitter, created to transmit ballistic missile launch orders to their submarines. The Soviets have caught wind of this and the chase is on to recover it first with stops along the way in Spain, Italy and Greece. Screenwriters Richard Maibaum, Michael G. Wilson and director John Glen (in his directorial debut after a notable editing career which included On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) created an uncomplicated spy thriller without sacrificing action or suspense. The motorcycle/ski chase in Cortina, Italy was especially well done, and second unit director Willy Bogner Jr. deserves mention here. Cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, Octopussy, Runaway Train), who had two other releases in 1981 with Eye of the Needle and Caveman, expertly filled the screen with For Your Eyes Only’s fantastic locations (with Corfu doubling for the scenes in Spain). The cast included the great Chaim Topol (Flash Gordon, Fiddler on the Roof), Carole Bouquet (Day of the Idiots, New York Stories), Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Empire Strikes Back) and Lynn-Holly Johnson (The Watcher in the Woods, Ice Castles). For Your Eyes Only earned $54 million at the U.S. box office and $159 worldwide against its $28 million budget.

Dragonslayer (June 26), directed by Matthew Robbins, is an underrated fantasy film with high production value and a story that has the tone of a good old fashioned sword and sorcery adventure novel. It’s a lighter film than April 1981’s Excalibur, but that plays perfectly to Dragonslayer’s more polished cinematography and production design compared to John Boorman’s darker Arthurian cinematic take. The film begins with a young woman’s sacrifice to the dragon Verminthrax Pejorative in an effort to appease it and spare the city of Urland from attack. Soon after a group from Urland journeys to Cragganmore to seek the sorcerer Ulrich’s help in destroying Verminthrax. But before Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) can make the journey back with them to Urland, King Casiodorus’s guards arrive, led by Tyrian (John Hallam) who is cynical of Ulrich’s and all wizard’s powers. Ulrich invites Tyrian to test his command of magic by stabbing him in the chest, and to everyone’s surprise it actually kills the old wizard. With his master dead, young apprentice Galen (Peter MacNichol) packs up for the journey to Urland and his date with destiny against the dragon. But while his magic seems to trap Verminthrax deep under his mountain lair, they soon learn you can’t keep a good dragon down and King Casiodorus resumes the lottery to select the next young woman to sacrifice. Galen must now face the dragon with more than an apprentice’s spells. Cinematographer Derek Vanlint’s (Alien) compositions and color values of the lush forests reminded me of the beautifully painted covers of the fantasy books I read (and tried to copy on canvas) when I was younger. The miniature model work to bring the film’s dragon Verminthrax Pejorative to life brings a texture and realism that is missing from too perfect CGI. It’s a shame Dragonslayer didn’t recoup its $18 million dollar budget, only earning $14 million in domestic box office which unfortunately may have been due to its niche genre rather than the crowded June 26th box office weekend (it earned $2.4 million its opening weekend, less than The Great Muppet Caper’s $2.9 million). On a personal level, one small thing that makes the movie going experience even better for me is when the art of a film’s poster accurately represents the story and the film lives up to the anticipation the poster creates. Artist Jeffrey Catherine Jones’s poster for Dragonslayer makes me wish painted movie posters would be the standard again. It truly was a magical time.

Stripes

Release Date: June 26, 1981
Starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, John Candy, John Larroquette, P.J. Soles, Sean Young
Directed by Ivan Reitman; Written by Len Blum, Dan Goldberg and Harold Ramis; Music by Elmer Bernstein

When the topic of classic comedies comes up, Animal House (1978), Airplane (1980), Caddyshack (1980) and The Blues Brothers (1980) are generally the first films mentioned and for good reason. These comedies brought a new level of outrageousness to the genre, launched film careers, and set the standard for film comedy for decades. But one classic and beloved comedy that deserves equal mention and also holds up forty years later is Ivan Reitman’s classic Army comedy Stripes starring Bill Murray and Harold Ramis.

By 1981, Murray had established his film career with Meatballs (1980), Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) and Caddyshack (1980), which was also Ramis’s directorial debut. Their collaboration with director Ivan Reitman on Stripes is the perfect showcase for their style of humor and set the tone for their future work together on Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. But compared to the Ghostbusters films, Stripes is a simpler comedy that relies more on Murray and Ramis’s perfect chemistry based on their laid back, subtle approach (with a touch of wise-ass humor) that doesn’t play it too far over the top.

John Winger (Bill Murray) is a photographer (though not exactly motivated enough to include the word aspiring…) who works a day job as a taxi driver while his best friend Russell Ziskey teaches questionable English as a second language to new immigrants. A rude passenger leads Winger to quit his job (with the type of dramatic panache that most people wish they could add), and while that alone would constitute a bad day for some folks, Winger’s car is repossessed, he drops his pizza, and his girlfriend Anita, fed up with his inability to move forward in life, finally leaves him. Using the moment to finally take stock in himself, Winger talks Russell into joining the Army with him. With nothing of value to really lose, they enlist and soon after are taking their bus ride to destiny…or in this case Fort Arnold (after flirting with two attractive MP’s at the bus depot).

Drill Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates) sees Winger for the slacker he is and uses every opportunity to make an example of him and whip him into shape. But hundreds of push ups later, Winger’s mouth still gets him into trouble and leads to the platoon getting worked harder. Captain Stillman (John Larroquette) is the officer that everyone loves to hate: a stuffed uniform with a pretentious enthusiasm and an inability to lead or command respect. He’s under orders to find the base’s best platoon to take over the Army’s EM-50 project, and at first glance Hulka’s underachieving platoon looks safely out of the picture.

After a rough day on the training course, a fed up Winger challenges Hulka to take on a rope climbing obstacle himself in front of the platoon, while over on the mortar firing range Stillman orders a group of inept soldiers to fire a round indiscriminately. When Hulka easily rope climbs to the top of the obstacle, he quickly hears the incoming mortar shell and is unable to duck to safety when his obstacle his hit, plunging him to the ground seriously injured. With Hulka out of commission Winger takes the group out for a night on the town at a local (cough) gentleman’s establishment that includes scantily dressed women and mud wrestling. He convinces Dewey “Ox” Oxberger (John Candy) to take them on in the mud wrestling ring, but the bar is quickly raided and they’re all arrested. But MP’s Stella (PJ Soles – Carrie, Halloween, Rock n’ Roll High School) and Louise (Sean Young – Blade Runner, Dune, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), now on their third run-in with Winger and Russell, take them back to base without any hassle. But Winger, in the spur of the moment breaks into General Barnicke’s empty house and Stella and Louise’s true feelings for Winger and Russell come out.

Stillman takes pleasure in telling the platoon that General Barnicke will see them for the screw ups they really are and they’ll have to repeat basic training. Winger and Russell make it back to the barracks to find the platoon too accepting of their fate and convinces them to pull an all nighter to cram everything they need to know to pass and graduate. They wake up an hour late the next morning, crash the in-progress graduation ceremony improperly dressed, and put on a demonstration that wows the crowd and General Barnicke, who admires their initiative in the face of losing their drill sergeant and assigns them to the EM-50 project in Italy.

The platoon arrives for their new assignment in Italy but their enthusiasm is quickly brought back down to earth when Sergeant Hulka’s creepy voice greats them in their barracks. Their job is to guard the EM-50 Urban Assult Vehicle: an RV equipped with high tech computers and weapons. But even with that new level of responsibility, and possibly the simplest job in the Army, Winger and Russell just can’t seem to play by the rules, and their cavalier handling of the EM-50 puts the platoon, Hulka and Stillman in some good old fashioned Cold War jeopardy.

No spoilers here. Part of what makes Stripes a great film and comedy is the supporting cast that perfectly complements Murray and Ramis, adding an extra layer that endears the misfit platoon to the audience. Larroquette (Night Court) and Oates (The Wild Bunch, Dillinger) are cast perfectly as the film’s foils, and even the smaller roles played by Judge Reinhold (Elmo), John Diehl (Cruiser) and Conrad Dunn (Francis…I mean, Psycho) lead to some memorable characters and classic lines. Be honest, how many of us have said or heard “Lighten up, Francis?” at least a few dozen times in the last 40 years?

Stripes turned its $10 million budget into an $85 million North American box office return, landing at #5 of the Top Ten grossing films of 1981. The film works on all levels, but special mention needs to be made of composer Elmer Bernstein, whose fantastic score keeps the film and the audience energized throughout its well paced run time of 106 minutes. I’ve seen the 123 minute director’s cut shown recently on the streaming services, and for years I’d heard of the additional scenes that answer where Winger and Ziskey were when they went AWOL, their unexpected predicament and how they got out of it. But I’m of the opinion that Stripes (and many other films that I will likely revisit down the road) works better without the additional scenes. If you’re a fan of the film, check out the director’s cut, but if you’re experiencing this near perfect comedy for the first time, go with the theatrical version.

While I missed it during its theatrical run in 1981, I watched it countless times on cable TV throughout the decade, making Stripes one of my favorite comedies of the 80’s and one that I return to as often as Animal House, Blues Brothers and Airplane! Stripes is the kind of film where you can’t help but root for the characters, quote a few lines and just laugh your ass off.

Next Up: Fante’s Inferno continues its retrospective with the films of July 1981!

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One thought on “A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (June – Part 2)

  1. For Your Eyes Only is one of my all-time favorite James Bond movies, as well.

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