“Ever since there’s been a base here, there’s been what you’d call the Puget Sound Debs. The poor girls come across the sound on the ferry every weekend with just one thing in mind, and that’s to marry themselves a naval aviator.”
In the 90s, post Pretty Woman, Richard Gere was a pure movie star. He churned out things like First Knight, Runaway Bride and Autumn in New York. He was the dreamy, silver fox who movie going middle aged women could really get behind. But in the 70s, he was a proper actor, making movies like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. The turning point from one to the happened in the early 80s. When Richard Gere transitioned from proper actor to movie star with a movie that perfectly encompassed both sides of his career, An Officer and a Gentleman.
A pre-teen boy arrives in the Philippines unaccompanied. He’s met at the airport by a crusty old navy sailor who we learn is the boy’s long absent father, Byron Mayo (Robert Loggia). He’s the kind of dad who immediately introduces his son to his two live in whores, and explains that he has no intention of being a traditional dad, who does traditional things, like give a shit about his son. The son grows up fending for himself and toughening up on the mean streets to become Zack Mayo (Richard Gere). In an act that is part tribute to his old man, part big ol’ ‘fuck you’, Zack signs on for officer’s training in the navy. If he graduates, he’ll outrank the man who barely raised him.
Arriving at officer’s training, cocky Zack is immediately the focus of Drill Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jr). He’s the kind of guy who believes he has to completely break his cadets down, before rebuilding them in the navy’s perfect image. Zack also meets local girl, Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger). He falls for her, but also fears she might be like all the local girls in the area who dream of marrying a naval officer who will take them away from the dead end lives working in the local factory.
An Officer and Gentleman was a massive critical and box office success in 1982, but I wasn’t really expecting it to hold up today. On the surface, it seemed like just another cheesy romance. But here’s the thing with An Officer and a Gentleman, it’s not just a good movie, it’s two great movies. You have the military training movie with a battle of wills between the hot shit new recruit and the grizzled old drill sergeant. Apparently a popular genre at the time, when you realise that this, Stripes, Full Metal Jacket and Heartbreak Ridge all came out within a few years of each other.
And you also have the romantic drama between Mayo and Paula. And the impressive part is, how fully formed both stories are, without one ever overshadowing the other. The dynamic between Mayo and Foley goes all the way from mild suspicion, to contempt, to seething hatred, to grudging respect, to mutual admiration. And it never feels rushed or unearned. While Mayo and Paula’s love story hits all the dramatic romance beats in just the right ways to flesh that story out completely as well.
It might look cheesy, it might look dated, it might look like you know exactly what to expect from An Officer and a Gentleman. But that’s just not true. If you’ve never seen it before, it really is worth a look. And if you have seen it before, but not recently, treat yourself to a re-watch. Because if you remember it as being just OK, or worse, you’re in for a more than pleasant surprise.