This is the story of a young man raised by a brutal father -- a lousy parent who rents his women by the hour and gives one of them to his son as a birthday present. This tawdry and brutal life turns the boy into a loner. He is incapable of friendship or love, rejecting them both whether they come from men, women or, for that matter, his drill sergeant. This is about the movie "An Officer and a Gentleman."

It is a whale of a movie and I have to say I enjoyed it immensely. It has romance, action, terrific acting, Richard Gere (who sources say is very sexy) and, I have to add, the best kissing I have ever seen in any movie. (If there is an Oscar for best kissing, Gere and his costar Debra Winger are going to walk off with it -- that is if they can still walk.)

Having told you that, I also have to tell you that the movie has a message. It's the message of "Stripes" and before that of "Private Benjamin" and even before that of a host of films from a different era in which the Army turned a punk into a man by brutalizing him. In "Officer" it's not the Army that does the trick, but the Navy's boot camp for potential pilots. Ex-GIs will be relieved to know that the Navy has mud, too.

In "Officer" the conversion happens almost overnight. When Gere is caught breaking regulations, he is compelled to undergo a weekend of harassment and physical punishment. Presto! It works. His catharsis apparently comes as he is cleaning a latrine with a toothbrush. Where once we had a loner who cared for no one but himself, we suddenly have the Albert Schweitzer of the Navy -- not to mention a really clean latrine. The conversion, I have to add, is not quite completed until Gere squares off with his drill sergeant -- the only man up to then who presumably cared enough to beat him up.

Never mind that it was brutality that made Gere into the person he was in the first place. Never mind that, in real life, brutality seems to make people more, not less, brutal and never mind, too, that the basic training experience of this correspondent is that it leaves you neither nicer nor more caring, just tired. What really matters is that a movie with this message is a big, big hit -- second only to "E.T." -- and that audiences that should be laughing are instead eating it up.

Why? Well, the appeal of this particular movie aside, it is apparent that it is saying something we like. For all the smooching and action, it also reflects our disillusionment with new and progressive ways of dealing with nonconformists -- anything from loners to criminals. Nothing seems to work -- not compassion, not therapy, not anything. So in exchange for something new that does not work, we go back to something old that did not work. At least it's familiar. At least we understand the rules.

This is true across the board. It explains the yearning for capital punishment, prayer in the schools and the attempt to do away with sex education -- as if that will do away with premarital sex itself. Nothing is immune from this attempt to impose antiquated and certifiably unworkable solutions on contemporary problems. At the moment, for instance, everyone and his uncle is in favor of compelling the government to balance the budget even though, economists will tell you, it is a prescription for disaster.

To an extent, some of this is healthy -- and in some movies just plain fun. If "Officer" and similar films prove anything, it is that we can once again see a film about the military without squirming in our seats. The trouble is that the lessons of Vietnam, like the ones we should know about brutality, have been bypassed, not assimilated. In "Officer" it enables the recruits to sing abhorrent chants about napalming women without one of them protesting or without -- at least when I saw it -- the audience hissing at the screen.

It is true, of course, that this film and similar ones are nothing new. They have been Hollywood staples for as long as there has been a Hollywood, but they played to an audience that didn't know any better. Now they are entertaining an audience that has lost its collective memory -- that will enjoy something not because it makes any sense, but because it once was supposed to make sense. In this case, it is that brutality can make a punk into a man. It can -- a brutal man.