Here’s one I must have seen first in a theater. It’s An Officer and a Gentleman, featuring Richard Gere, in the first of his appearances that caught my attention. This was released by Paramount Pictures in 1982 and is currently available on Amazon Prime Video, where I obtained these screen shots. Details are from Wikipedia.
Gere is Zack Mayo, who previously had a rough time growing up. Opening scenes show flashbacks to his childhood. It shows Zack (Tommy Petersen), arriving in the Philippine Islands, where his father, a drunken, whore mongering sailor, is stationed. Zack’s mother, abandoned by Zack’s father, has killed herself.
At Mate Mayo’s (Robert Loggia) home ashore, young Zack is quickly introduced to the seamier side of life. The mean streets of Subic Bay teach him to look out for himself, as classmates beat him up and take his money on his first day at school.
Now Zack is grown up and just graduated from college, and he wants to be a Navy jet pilot. This takes him a short motorcycle ride to the Port Rainier U.S. Naval Air Station, created specially for this movie. Here Zack lines up with a host of other candidates and meets drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr.).
How this must resonate with those who have gone through Navy boot camp and similar exercises in their youth. The first thing the military does to recruits is to take away their individuality and their self-respect. It’s psychologically engineered hazing, and it has a purpose. In this case the Navy has invested a sum of money on each candidate just qualifying them to this point. Before the Navy is prepared to spend an additional $1 million (this was over 30 years ago) training a pilot, they want to weed out those who won’t stick or can’t stick. Sergeant Foley’s job is to break the ones who can be broken and booted out of the program. He is mean.
Foley warns the candidates there is another danger lurking just across the water. They are the Puget Sound debs. They are local women who come across on the ferry hoping to meet up with an officer candidate, a candidate with a future that can take them out of their drab existence. They will do anything, Foley tells the candidates, to trap them into marriage.
We next meet two of these debs. They are Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger) and Lynette Pomeroy (Lisa Blount), and they arrive at a party on the base loaded for bear. We are going to see a lot more of these two, especially Miss Pokrifki. A lot more. Zack and his friend Sid Worley (David Keith) are immediately smitten by the ladies’ obvious charms, of which they partake before the night is out. Romance ensues.
As romance rocks along, Paula and the others begin to see a hidden side of Zack, molded from the mean environment of his childhood. When some local toughs at a bar take umbrage at the Navy boys scooping up all the prime pussy, one follows them out into the street, where Zack proceeds to unload a heavy load of whoop-ass on him.
Zack’s devious tendencies catch up with him when Foley exposes his black market in inspection proof accessories. Foley announces the intention of forcing Zack to D.O.R. (drop on request), and he puts him through a non-stop ordeal of harassment and physical deprivation. Zack’s fatal character flaw is revealed when he acknowledges why he won’t quit, can’t quit. In his life he’s at the end of the line. “I have nowhere else to go!”
For some strange reason, Foley relents, and keeps Zack in the program. Zack turns around, almost completely. Previously a loner, devoid of team spirit, he abandons his record-setting run through the obstacle course to coax candidate Casey Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher) over the climbing wall. This was do or die for Seeger. Failure would have washed her out of the program.
Romance goes sour. Zack and Sid know they won’t be taking their debs with them when they graduate and depart for flight school. Paula takes it as the breaks of life. Lynette fakes a pregnancy to coerce Sid into matrimony. Sid falls for it and drops out of the program, purchases a ring, and proposes to Lynette. When she learns he plans to take her back to Oklahoma to live the life of a store manager, she gives him back the ring and tells him it’s no deal. Sid reacts by checking into a motel and washing down the ring with a swig from a bottle. Then he hangs himself.
Here comes the strange (absurd?) aspect of the plot. Zack reacts to Sid’s D.O.R. and suicide by blaming Sergeant Foley. He challenges Foley to martial arts combat, and we get to see some prime kung-fu. Zack gives as good as he gets, but Foley ultimately defeats him with a well placed foot to the groin.
Graduation day, and Paula never expects to see Ensign Zack Mayo again. He shows up at the paper factory where she’s putting in what turns out to be her final shift. In pure Cinderella fashion he kisses her and carries her bodily out of the factory and into another life. It’s a fair-tale ending.
And that’s just one of the things wrong with the plot. Too fairy tale on the ending.
Also, Zack has done some things that in real life would have resulted in immediate and automatic dismissal. The bit about Foley giving Zack a second chance is pure fantasy. This was 35 years ago when the Navy was not exactly hurting for pilot candidates. They could afford to be choosy. A candidate with a proclivity for larceny would not have been a worthy risk.
There’s parallel in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun. The hero is Navy fighter jock Pete Mitchell, who breaks rules and is in recurrent difficulty with the command structure. The character was supposedly patterned after real-life Navy ace Randall “Duke” Cunningham. Duke stretched the limits everywhere, including breaking into a superior officer’s office to peak at confidential records. Following a successful Navy career, he was elected to Congress, ultimately representing California District 50. He was convicted of “tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud” and sentenced to prison.