Private Benjamin (1980)
Private Benjamin (1980)

Genre: Comedy and War Running Time: 1 hr. 49 min.

Release Date: October 10th, 1980 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Howard Zieff Actors: Goldie Hawn, Eileen Brennan, Armand Assante, Robert Webber, Sam Wanamaker, Barbara Barrie, Mary Kay Place, Harry Dean Stanton, Albert Brooks




ll Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) ever wanted in life was to have a big house, nice clothes, two closets, a live-in maid, and a professional man for a husband. As luck would have it, her wedding to Yale Goodman (Albert Brooks) checks many of those boxes (though her family is already well-to-do). After a lavish reception in Philadelphia, prurient Yale makes love to his new wife on the bathroom floor of their hotel room – and dies from sudden heart failure. This opening is one of the most unpredictable, unexpected, hilariously morbid introductions of any movie ever – and a fantastic way to kickstart a dramatic comedy. “What were Yale’s last words?”

“You gotta get right back into circulation.” The grieving process is tough for the 28-year-old woman, who has no real skills and has never before been alone. Plus, she feels like she’s being punished, even though she hasn’t done anything wrong. When she mopes to a radio program, a helpful caller offers a solution. The next day, she’s surprised to find herself at an Army Recruiting Station in front of Sergeant Jim Ballard (Harry Dean Stanton), who convinces her to give the military a chance. “What if I hate it?”

Soon enough, Private Benjamin arrives at Fort Biloxi in Mississippi, where she’s immediately confronted by a booming drill sergeant and commanded to do push-ups for failing to stay awake through roll-call. She’s further shocked to discover that the uniforms only come in green and that the soldiers aren’t welcomed aboard their own private yachts and into their own private condos. And then there’s Captain Doreen Lewis (Eileen Brennan), whose grueling, inflexible mandates and routines (predating “Full Metal Jacket,” but with a similar flavor) are no laughing matter. “There’s been a mistake.”

As basic training (ever so slowly) transforms Judy from a pampered princess into a slick soldier, self-pity morphs into confidence and regret becomes pride. But it’s a long journey, fraught with the dangers of hard work and commitment. When Judy’s parents attempt to bring her home, resulting in a revelation about independence, it’s actually exceptionally inspirational (it’s an unforgettable, pivotal moment of genuineness). She must earn respect from her colleagues as well as her superiors, but it’s a task she suddenly realizes is worth it – and in the process, she just might learn to value herself.

The film doesn’t spoof the U.S. military as much as it pokes fun at people too fragile or ill-prepared for strict discipline, physical fitness, precise schedules, and zealous teamwork. Benjamin is ultimately the only comical persona; almost everyone around her is deadly serious for contrast. At the same time, it’s a character study of a tremendously sympathetic, positively admirable fighter – and one who knows how to have a good time to boot (she’s not above pranking the commanding officer when the time is right).

Halfway through, Judy’s story takes a romantic twist when she meets French gynecologist Henri Alan Tremont (Armand Assante) while on leave after graduation. But the conclusion of basic training is just the beginning of her career: the challenges of a skydiving airborne unit – and its uncouth leader (Robert Webber) – as well as a transfer to France await. And, expectedly, the return of problematic acquaintances threatens to shatter the high spirits of her accomplishments. In the end, Benjamin (alongside the audience) learns a great many things about the service, the brass, men, money, unconditional optimism, aplomb, and, most importantly, herself. Life presents countless obstacles, but courage and determination are forever invaluable – as well as depending chiefly on oneself to overcome misfortune.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10