Zack Mayo (Gere) is an orphaned loner who grows up to be an emotionally isolated opportunist after his mother commits suicide and his father ignores him. After graduating from college, he joins the Navy in hopes of becoming an aviator, and enters officer's training under the tutelage of Drill Sergeant Nasty Emil Foley (Gossett). Despite being warned about the local girls who are looking for potential officers to marry, Zack and his friend Sid Worley (Keith) begin to date two local girls, Paula Pokrifki (Winger) and Lynette Pomeroy (Lisa Blount). Along the way, Zack learns the importance of friends and colleagues.
Earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and Golden Globe for Gossett...who, it should be noted, had to beat out his co-star Keith, who had also been nominated for the latter award.
This work provides examples of:
- The Ace: Deconstructed. Mayo leaps every hurdle—from the obstacle course to shining belt buckles—with ease. But he falls far short of Foley's standards for character, who makes it clear he'd rather pass the girl who can't make it over the climbing wall than the ethically elastic Mayo.
- Artistic License – Military:
- As a general rule, Gunnery Sergeant Foley should be referred to by that rank, or by the accepted informal shorthand "Gunny." In Navy OCS, however, the proper term of address for a drill instructor of any rank is "Sergeant Instructor." The movie gets it wrong in either case by referring to him as simply "Sergeant."
- The location of Aviation Officer Candidate School is also wrong. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where this movie is set, is in actuality, just a base for anti-submarine patrol airplanes such as the P-3 Orion. Navy OCS is in Newport Rhode Island now, and during that time, the aviation OCS was at Naval Air Station Pensacola in /Florida.
- Also, Casey /Seeger would at that time, never been allowed to fly jets, like she wanted to. Women were excluded from flying combat aircraft and serving onboard ships, so Casey would have been relegated to shore based helicopters or patrol planes.
- Although they were excluded from combat, Navy women began flying jets in the 1970s.
- The Baby Trap: A central point of the film. The cadets are clearly warned about how the local women want to marry an officer to escape their blue-collar lives, and aren't afraid of using The Baby Trap to do so."Sergeant Foley, can't you see,
A Puget Deb is after me!
Please don't let 'em catch my tail,
I'd be better off in the country jail!
My mom was a deb, my grandma too;
That's all them gals know how to do!"
- Subverted when Lynette fakes being pregnant so that Sid will marry her. She confesses to the hoax when he resigns from the Navy to do so, which she didn't want.
- Bar Brawl: Subverted. Despite the obvious tensions, the brawl doesn't happen until everyone is outside, and it ends after one well-timed roundhouse kick.
- Bowdlerise: Sgt. Foley's cadence during the cadets' training ("...Puget debs...") was dubbed over an earlier real-life Marine cadence about napalming children. However, this is averted in most of the UK Channel 4/More 4 airings of the film while they currently have the rights; the "napalm sticks to kids" variant is retained. (in 2013)
- CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: It doesn't work though, as Sid was already dead.
- The Determinator: Casey Seeger, who forgoes weekend leave just to do more exercises so she can pass the obstacle course.
- Didn't Think This Through: Sid resigning from OCS when Lynette insinuates that he knocked her up, is actually quite a foolhardy decision. Had he commissioned into the Navy, then married Lynette, his status as a naval officer would have allowed them to live quite comfortably. They would have received free housing, free healthcare, travel allowances, subsidized groceries at the PX, free on base schooling for the kid, access to the Officers Club, not to mention veterans benefits and size able retirement benefits had he made it to twenty years. The kid would even have access to financial aid for college bound military dependents. Lynette wasn't entirely off base for yelling at him when he quit.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Played to perfection by Louis Gossett Jr.
- Driven to Suicide: Sid Worley, who drops out of the program despite nearly finishing because he believes his girl Lynette is pregnant. When she tells him it was a lie and she doesn't want to marry a non-airman, he hangs himself in a motel shower stall.
- Gold Digger: Lynette. If you had any doubt, you'll know it when Sid proposes and she starts acting like she won the lottery.
- Good Old Fisticuffs: Averted when Zack fights Sgt. Foley after Sid's suicide. While Zack is a skilled fighter who learned streetwise fisticuffs, Foley — the self-defense instructor with kung fu expertise — eventually defeats him.
- Groin Attack: How Foley defeats Mayo during their fight at the end.
- Hero of Another Story: Casey Seeger. You get the feeling that if the camera were to ignore Zack Mayo and start following her around, the movie would be just as entertaining.
- Hoist by Her Own Petard: Lynette's baby hoax results in Sid dropping out of the program, thus defeating her scheme of marrying an aviator.
- Honor Before Reason: Arguably, Sid Worley, who drops out of the program with only two weeks remaining when he thinks Lynette is pregnant with his child.
- Karma Houdini: Sid's girlfriend, Lynette. She lies to Sid about being pregnant, setting off a chain of events that leads to Sid's suicide. Yet by the end of the movie, she appears no worse for wear, whose only repercussion is to cheer Paula as she's being carried off in Zack's arms.
- Subverted sinceLynette's cheer of Paula in the end is bittersweet as she realizes that she is never leaving her dismal factory life.
- Like Parent, Like Spouse: Paula confesses to Zack that she loves him because he reminds her of her biological father, a Navy aviator.
- Military Brat: Zack Mayo and Sid Worley.
- My Sibling Will Live Through Me: Sid is driven to succeed for the sake of his older brother, who was killed in combat.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Played mildly when Casey, in her final run of the obstacle course, still can't make the rope-climb wall she needs to pass the test. Zack abandons his attempt at breaking the course record to return and yell encouragement at her until she climbs it.
- Parental Abandonment: When Zack moves in with his father in the Philippines after his mother's death, his Dad explicitly tells him that he won't "do the daddy stuff" and leaves Zack to raise himself above a brothel.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Foley delivers literally all of his dialogue this way.
- Quitting to Get Married: David Keith's character (Jim Worley) is an naval officer candidate who has a fling with one of the town girls (as candidates often do) named Lynette; she reports that she is pregnant in order to get him to marry her, but then he quits the navy to marry her. Lynette had wanted to be a navy officer's wife, so she dumps him (and informs him that she wasn't pregnant after all). He hangs himself.
- Scary Black Man: Sgt. Foley, part and parcel of his Drill Sergeant Nasty role.
- A case of Truth in Television: While doing research, screenwriter Douglas Stewart found out that all of the top drill instructors at Pensacola were African-American, which inspired the casting of Louis Gossett Jr.
- And Gossett had good training; the military adviser for the film was R. Lee Ermey.
- Averted (for good reason, in this case) in the Takarazuka version, with Kaname Ouki as Foley.◊
- The Scrounger: Zack, who does a brisk business selling polished boots and belt buckles for his comrades to pass inspection."Wave good-bye to your buddies, Mayonnaise! Oh, I forgot. You don't have any buddies, do you? Only customers!"
- The Squadette: Casey Seeger, the only woman in Zack's class of candidates.
- Training from Hell: Zack gets this personally from Sgt. Foley after he's busted for selling inspection-approved boots and buckles.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Casey, who wants to be a female naval aviator and win the approval of her father. She gets a Heroic B.S.O.D. when Sgt. Foley exposes her weakness and calls her out on it."You're one of those girls who couldn't get enough of daddy's attention because he really wanted a son!"