“Volunteers” has every hallmark of an 80s comedy: Tom Hanks and John Candy, irreverent humor, a simple plot and a romantic ending that makes you smile despite its corniness.

“Unlike the 1970s, when hard-hitting movies addressed controversial subjects, lighthearted fare seemed to reign supreme in the 1980s,” according to History.com.

However, to say that “Volunteers” falls into that category overlooks the fact that it has something sincere to say about the role of government, patriotism and service to the country — even as it pokes fun at these concepts. Taken against the mid-1980s political backdrop that reflected the late stages of the Cold War, “yuppie culture” and growing questions about the U.S. hegemony, “Volunteers” charmingly harkens back to a more innocent era decades earlier, when people believed in America’s ability and, indeed, responsibility to try and make the world a better place.

Take, for example, the opening sequence of visual vignettes of the 1960s, a time of reinvigorated American foreign policy with President John F. Kennedy at the helm. He spurred new humanitarian initiatives, including the Peace Corps — the real star of the film — and boosted foreign aid, which, as the movie makes plain, could sometimes backfire. Still, the film’s characters try to do what’s right, and though they don’t always succeed, they never abandon the mission.

The main character, Lawrence Whatley Bourne III (Hanks) is a perfect example. He’s a stuck-up, lazy Yale graduate who begrudgingly joins the Peace Corps, which at the time would’ve been only a year old, to escape a gambling debt. His wealthy father (played by a perfectly cast George Plimpton) refuses to bail him out, and Lawrence spends much of rest of the film working various scams and trying to seduce the beautiful and naive Beth Wexler (Rita Wilson).

(Fun fact: Hanks and Wilson began dating shortly after making “Volunteers,” and they’ve been married ever since.)

Wexler, of course, wants nothing to do with Bourne or his selfishness. And Bourne makes no effort to hide his disdain when boarding the Thailand-bound plane full of ruddy-faced young adults singing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

“Really now, I am obviously not of Peace Corps fiber,” he says at one point. “It’s not that I can’t help these people, it’s just that I don’t want to.”

Then, in swoops “America’s son,” Tom Tuttle (Candy), a true believer in America as the Shining City on a Hill who sees this trip as a calling. Tuttle and Bourne foil each other, but they share a hubris. Bourne doesn’t care to mingle with other cultures he finds beneath him, Tuttle volunteers for the sake of asserting a better (read: American) way of life. It’s a terrific role for Candy, who is hilarious and dominates every scene he’s in.

And so this ragtag group of young people with very little understanding of the real world finds itself tasked with building a bridge to help the people of a remote village. While they’re ordering the reluctant locals around, they slowly begin to realize that they’re being manipulated by the CIA, local drug lord Chung Mee (Ernest Harada) and communist guerrillas, all of whom see completion of the project as essential to their plans for regional domination.

That dramatic irony is hilarious and poignant. Bourne, the least likely to befriend the locals, becomes their favorite and starts to care what happens to them. Tuttle, the stalwart patriot, is easily and comically brainwashed by the communists. The greatest irony of all? At the end, the American volunteers realize they must blow up the bridge they just built to save the village — which is probably what the locals wanted all along, had anyone listened to them.

Dueling agencies

This movie is full of dueling messages about whether government helps or hurts, which is why it continues to resonate almost 40 years after its release. Two federal agencies are pitted against each other. The “good” is embodied by the kumbaya-singing Peace Corps volunteers with white-savior complexes, and the “bad” takes the form of a corrupt double agent for the CIA named John Reynolds (Tim Thomerson).

Some elements have not aged well. One character, who is supposed to be humanitarian, makes racist jokes about Asian cultures and language. You could argue that’s satirical or spoofy, but it’s definitely not how civil servants are expected to behave. The film production also encountered some political interference.

Officials told film director Nicholas Meyer to change the script and “don’t mention the CIA in the same breath with the Peace Corps,” according to a New York Times article from 1985.

“Volunteers,” cost about $10 million to make and earned just under $20 million at the box office, making it a modest success. Reviews at the time were mostly positive, though not everyone appreciated its message.

Robert Sargent Shriver, who married into the Kennedy family and who helped start the Peace Corps, said “‘Volunteers’ was like spitting on the American flag.”

Meyer told the Times that officials warmed to his film, eventually, and said that if it any kind of real message, it’s exactly what a teary-eyed Wexler said to the villagers: the Peace Corps wants to help people, not change them.

Today, the Peace Corps still sends thousands of volunteers each year to developing countries around the world. The independent federal agency employs nearly 7,000 federal workers and has an annual budget of some $410 million.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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