Too many movies end with weddings. Private Benjamin starts with one, which is fitting for Judy Benjamin, the film’s marrriage-centered protagonist. The movie’s opening slate indicates that ever since she was eight, she wanted to be married. And yet, the depth of the romance in her most recent marriage can be gauged by the following dialogue:
Judy: Thank you for marrying me.
Yale Goodman (her husband): You’re welcome.
Sadly (or happily, depending on your perspective), Goodman dies while they’re having sex. Judy’s adrift without a man in her life. One night, through a tear-filled call to an all-night self-help radio show, she’s “saved” by the voice of an Army recruiter, who regales her with tales of the private condos and traveling she can expect from signing up for the Army.
Of course, it turns out to be quite different, and after initially fumbling through all the tasks in basic training, she turns out to be a competent (and even ingenious) soldier. Through her trials in the Army, she develops genuine friendship and self-confidence, more valuable gifts than those material things those Army brochures promised. A major turning point comes when she advocates for herself by blackmailing Colonel Thornbush, the commander of a team of paratroopers, when he attempts to rape her as an alternative to having Judy jump out of a plane at 13,000 feet.
Her newfound smarts (or natural smarts that she’s just discovered) land her an assignment in Belgium, where she meets Henri, a hunky French gynecologist. Through the actions of a vindictive superior officer (whom she humiliated in basic training), it’s learned that this beau is a Communist, and Judy’s given a choice: break up with him or leave the Army. In the movie’s “Dark Night of the Soul” moment, Judy leaves the Army and becomes engaged to him. She begins to revert to her old ways, dying her hair red at his request and signing a prenuptial argument that’s written in French. Henri also has an ongoing affair with his maid, practically in front of Judy’s face.
Fortunately, Judy rediscovers her confidence when she ditches Henri at the altar, punctuating her exit with a punch to his face when he calls her stupid. The last shot has her walking away from the church. My guess is she’s heading back to the Army, where she lives her best life.
I mentioned Private Benjamin as a pro-single movie in my book, How to be a Happy Bachelor. Judy starts out the movie as a matrimaniac, and ends up realizing that, in the case of Henri, she’s “better off single.” This movie was ahead of its time; most films take the opposite route. Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars, but didn’t like the self-esteem building angle, instead preferring Hawn’s antics as a “female Beetle Bailey.” I took the opposite route. While I enjoyed the scenes at basic training, I felt they could have been cut by about five to ten minutes, but loved the arc Judy goes through. I remember being stunned the first time I watched the ending (I was eighteen), thinking, Whoa, they didn’t get married at the end! That’s unusual! Now, that feeling is something I hope for at most movies.