Sorry Paula – the real love story in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman is between protagonist Zack Mayo and drill sergeant Foley.
What is An Officer and a Gentleman about?
Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) turns his back on his emotionally unavailable father and joins the navy. Like the rest of the recruits, Mayo is dead set on flying jets. But to do that, he must first pass a harrowing selection process – and avoid falling in love with local girl Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger).
An Officer and a Gentleman isn’t just an old movie, it’s a classic. If you’ve found this page, you’ve probably seen the film. If not, there are spoilers ahead.
The story explained
What makes an Officer and a Gentleman so compelling is its take on the power – and perils – of love.
Zack Mayo is an emotionally scarred young man who can’t trust anyone. His dad, a nogoodnik who thinks family bonding means sharing prostitutes, has no sympathy when Zack’s mom dies.
Mayo turns his back on the squalor, choosing to put himself through the US navy’s brutal selection process instead.
Along the way, Mayo falls for local lass Paula. He tries to convince her – and himself – that they’ll never be anything serious. Paula won’t give up on him, though. She teaches Mayo to believe in himself, and to take a chance on love.
The movie’s iconic final scene sums up their redemptive love story. Mayo (wearing a crisp, white officer’s uniform) walks into Paula’s factory and sweeps her off her feet. It looks like Mayo is rescuing Paula from a life of hardship. In reality, they rescue each other.
An Officer and a Gentleman is absolutely a love story between Mayo and Paula. But it’s not the only romance in the film. The movie’s platonic, male-buddy bromance(s) are just as crucial to the story.
What makes An Officer and a Gentleman a bromance?
Zack Morley starts as a raw recruit who thinks nothing of profiting from his comrades, or leaving them to swing when they’re in trouble. Later he learns to care for his team mates, and it transforms him. But it also devastates him when his closest friend, Sid Worley, kills himself.
The film is about friendship, intimacy and team work, with Worley and Mayo becoming especially close. Yet theirs isn’t the key pairing in the film – that’s Mayo and antagonistic drill sergeant Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.) This particular relationship parallels aspects of romantic love, platonic love and family love.
The film nods at this at the end. Sure, the final scene in the factory is the one burnt into pop culture’s collective memory. But there’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when the cadets pay a silver dollar to get their first salute from Foley.
Foley puts Mayo’s dollar in a different pocket to all the others, indicating he’s his most memorable student (see the Reddit explanation).
Mayo says something interesting during this scene. He tells Foley that he’ll never forget him. He also thanks Foley, saying he wouldn’t have made it without him. This mimics a (shorter) speech he gives Paula earlier in the film.
It may be that Mayo is a polite young chap – but it’s curious that these two relationships hold a similar weight for him.
Foley obviously stands for Mayo’s missing father figure. A line which was cut from the final release (source) even has Mayo state that Foley is the dad he never had.
Mayo’s real dad gets him laid. Foley – the substitute father – teaches the officer candidates about women and relationships.
Fatherly love Vs romantic love
Foley doesn’t just end up a positive influence for Mayo. He represents the parental love that Mayo truly craves.
Mayo’s mother killed herself when he was a child. His father is worse than useless. It’s only Foley who is constant and consistent, and who cares about Mayo (and the other candidates) becoming decent human beings.
Mayo’s biological father doesn’t appear much in the movie, with his role trimmed back before release. One of those cut scenes would have seen Mayo saluting his dad – a nod to their conversation at the start of the film.
Instead, the film skips to that iconic final scene between Paula and Mayo. But what gets lost along the way is why.
The ending is memorable exactly as is, but it’s also a little disjointed. There’s no obvious reason why Mayo should change his mind and go back to Paula. Instead we see Mayo graduate alone, say goodbye to Foley, and then rock up at the factory.
There isn’t even any guarantee that Paula and Mayo end up together – we assume they do, but it may just as well be a passionate goodbye.
For a movie about a love affair, we also don’t see a great deal of intimacy between Mayo and Paula. Most of their scenes are about sex or playing house rather than dates or hanging out.
After Worley’s death, Paula isn’t able to connect with Mayo emotionally (like his dad, Mayo struggles with real intimacy). Instead, Mayo turns to Foley to express how he feels. He turns up at the military base and picks a fight.
Foley response – “I see what you want” – recognises that Mayo needs an outlet for his grief. It’s only after their physical altercation (a replacement for touch) that Mayo is able to heal. He graduates, salutes Foley, and goes to meet Paula at the factory.
Without Foley, there would be no romantic resolution. And without Foley, there would no be resolution to the family tragedy and tension that the movie opens with.
The film isn’t just about a love affair. It’s a coming of age process for a damaged young man. Foley squares the circle. His relationship with Mayo is the true heart of An Officer and a Gentleman.
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), directed by Taylor Hackford
Other films similar to An Officer and a Gentleman
- Flashdance (80s, romance)
- Top Gun (80s, romance, military, masculinity) – see also Top Gun: Maverick
- Biloxi Blues (80s, military selection)
- Full Metal Jacket (80s, military – the realities of war)
Picture credit: Clem Onojeghuo