Friday, May 26, 2017

Cocoon (1985)

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Ok, NOW we can do Cocoon.

That’s right, we’re done with my five supplementary movies, to make up for the Fox collection’s astonishing gap between 1980 and 85, and so now we can proceed to the next official entry in the set, Ron Howard’s surprise smash hit from the summer of 1985. (Interestingly, it’s also the final film on Vol. II – two down, one to go!)

So I have several prefatory memories of this film growing up. I was 15 when I saw it at the Vineland 4 theater, on a Saturday night, along with both parents. We all loved it, but I was just beginning my career as amateur film critic (having just written all of two reviews), and had several critical comments for Mr. Howard, not the least of which was his plagiarism of Spielberg for the grand meeting-up-with-the-mothership finale. My parents no doubt rolled their eyes at my critique (which would not be the first time), but I went home and put all my notes into some semblance of a written review. The verdict: three stars, out of four. I probably sent it in somewhere (there were a few publications that took unsolicited movie reviews back then), but naturally got no response. Ah, well; the life of a writer.

Cocoon was also the kickoff of my first “Movie Summer” (see separate blog on this topic). It sort of whetted my appetite for the banquet of cinematic delicacies that was waiting for me within just a few short weeks. I think I saw The Goonies after this, followed shortly by Back to the Future, and then that was all she wrote. So it wasn’t just a good movie on its own, but it was also tied in with so many other wonderful concurrent offerings that helped make those dog days the pinnacle of my lifetime moviegoing experience. To use the title of a pop-song that went #1 that summer, it was “Heaven.”

And now?  It hasn’t lost a single bit of appeal for me; in fact I may even love it more than I did before as its themes of aging and revitalization touch a greater nerve for me now that I can more acutely recognize my own mortality. Howard, in his audio commentary, discussed how his wife, a psychologist specializing in geriatrics, encouraged him to focus on the human elements of the script – emphasizing the senior citizens’ spouses as well as their own individual lives. Howard, of course, is an actors’ director, and he was the perfect choice to helm the project – his understanding of he fears and foibles of the old aren’t al that different from those of the young, particularly when he get to be young courtesy the powers of some visiting aliens. And Howard also had an early knack for handling special effects, weaving the science-fiction elements into the human story without compromising either.

And, as we all know, it went on the gross well over 75 million – a surprise to many, but not to me. As William Goldman noticed in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, there’s a huge population out there who want to see movies about people over 50. It’s that demographic that made On Golden Pond and equally surprising hit just a few years earlier. And when a great film is made about them – hell, how about just a very good film that’s made about them – fireworks happens. And people go back and see it again, and tell their friends. And before long, it becomes a classic, ready to be enjoyed by future audiences, who also want to see quality film about older people.

Cocoon opens with a boy’s telescope, innocent eyes peering at he heavens, the same heavens that open up to allow some extraterrestrial entities to alight near a lost underwater colony. But now, we shift to a senior citizens home near St. Petersburg, Florida, and follow Art (Don Ameche) and Ben (Wilford Brimley), navigating their insular community with friend Joe (Hume Cronyn), his wife Alma (Jessica Tandy), Ben’s wife Mary (Maureen Stapleton), and Don’s potential love interest Bess (Gwen Verdon). Ben’s grandson, David, gives him comfort, along with his octogenarian friends, but when one of his co-tenants dies, the reminder of his maturity looms large. His only real solace – sneaking off to swim at a luxury club pool with friends Art and Joe.

Meanwhile, captain of a charter fishing boat Jack Bonner gets hired by a man named Walter (Brian Dennehy). He, along with two guys and a beauty named Kitty (Tahnee Welch), need the vessel to pick up some cocoons far offshore. They furtively place the cocoons in a pool, that pool, and the next time our grey-haired boys take a dip, they become immediately rejuvenated. The get their libidos back, go out dancing all night, and Joe’s cancer goes into remission. They feel young al right, but maybe too young – Joe’s wife suspects infidelity, and Art gets somewhat drunk with power. Maybe the Fountain of Youth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Before long, Jack discovers his current employers’ true identities (Kitty strips naked, removing her clothes and skin), and so do the old boys, when one of their pool trips gets interrupted. Ben bargains with Walter to let them keep swimming, but his promise not to let anyone else partake gets broke when the entire home leads a mass exodus to get some of that pool water themselves, leading to a dehydration of two of the cocoons, along with their alien inhabitants. Enraged Walter suddenly becomes mournful over the loss of two friends, but he offers the elders a deal – come back with them to their home planet of Antarea, where no one gets sick or dies. All of them, along with 20 friends, accept the offer. After tearful goodbyes, and hot pursuit by the Coast Guard and local police, they meet of with the Antrean mothership, who takes them skyward. Believed to be lost at sea, they are mourned at a funeral. Only grandson David knows the truth.

As I mentioned, Cocoon affected me more viscerally this time. For one thing, I’m more familiar with these veteran actors’ oeuvres, and I certainly got more involved in their matured characters. But if I had to pick one aspect of he film that really jazzed me, and probably accounted for its public appeal, it had to be their rejuvenation – specifically the scenes where they shoot hoops, seduce their wives and generally get a new lease on life: in essence, the money shots. There’s something inherently so satisfying about seeing Don Ameche breakdance (that’s why he got the Oscar in this de facto ensemble work). But equally affecting are the scenes involving elder heartbreak – like the brief shot of anonymous nursing-home death, and the wrenching scene where Art and Mary say goodbye to their grandson for the last time, unbeknownst to his mom. This is one of the most emotional movie scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I’m not exaggerating.

And therein lies the key to Cocoon’s continued appeal, even after 30 years. Howard made these characters real – not blue-haired stereotypes but living, breathing human beings, warts and all. And even if their dialogue isn’t always cracker-jack, or their direction on the same, authentic level as Altman, the tone rings just right. Howard is a sentimentalist, to be sure, but he keeps the proceedings crisp enough not to get too sugary. And even so he’s got a tight plot to rescue him if need be, particularly in the second act we things get more dramatic, not Howard’s forte.

How was my initial assessment of the finale being too Spielbergian? Accurate, surely, but forgivable, particularly by modern standards, when the ending would’ve been three times more hyped up and involved a few dozen CGI effects. I don’t really mind the rip off now because at least he’s stealing from the best, or at least the best back then. And again, it hold up well in modern times because the emphasis is on careful, methodical character development. Would any modern studio even approach such an idea? With veteran actors? Or even a character actor like Brian Dennehy in the lead? No way, hose?

My initial rating of three stars? Okay, but I’ll up it by a half-star, still hesitant for the full four because of its broad direction, particularly in the second half.

Wait, fuck that! What am I saying? If it works, it works. Cocoon gets…


Rating:  ****




Monday, May 15, 2017

Romancing the Stone (1984)


We’re skipping 1983; Fox’s Mr. Mom is a bit too trivial, and To Be or Not To Be redundant as Mel Brooks is already represented. I would’ve considered Silkwood but it’s out of print on DVD, and so we’re up to 1984, and my selection from that year is obvious: Romancing the Stone.

I mean, c’mon! This absolutely needs to be in this collection – it was a commercial ad critical huge hit, spawned a sequel the following year, kickstarted the careers of stars Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny Devito and director Robert Zemeckis, and was just simply a freaking entertaining movie! Easily a classic in every sense of the word.

But it didn’t start out that way. It all began when Michael Douglas, who, despite having received lead billing in several films from 1978 to 1983 but was never a major movie star, was approached by a waitress at a café in Los Angeles. Her name was Diane Thomas, an aspiring screenwriter with just one script under her belt, but when she showed it to Douglas, he just knew had to make it. He and Columbia pictures bought it, but when they got cold feet, he took it to Fox, where it would be helmed by a neophyte director by the name of Robert Zemeckis.

But Fox was nervous, and with no real stars, a green-lit budget of 10 million but steadily rising due to remote location shoots in Mexico, an untried director and the worst movie title in Hollywood history, they soon lost all faith in the project. Zemeckis was fired from his next Fox assignment, Cocoon, and their accountants were all set t write it off as a colossal bomb.

But it wasn’t, even though they dumped it for a March release – word of mouth made it the must-see film of that spring. (Back then, movies had staying power; it played in theaters all the way up through the summer.) I remember seeing it for the first time at the Depford Mall – loving it, clearly, and responding, I think to its freshness; it was an old-fashioned, serial inspired adventure film, sure, but it looked crisp and vibrant, with a cool-jazz, modern-sounding score, and an exotic up-to-date setting of drug-war-ravaged South America. I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, don’t get me wrong, but Romancing felt more adult to me, with more mature concepts and themes, still then a distant concept but one for which I had an insatiable curiosity. I saw it as second time, with my mother, and, as I expected she loved it too. It sort of validated my own appreciation of it.

And, in keeping with the early 80s, it was all filtered through a female sensibility, specifically, that of Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), Stone’s protagonist. She’s a best-selling adventure-romance novelist, desperately wishing her real life could match her fantastical exploits, until one day she gets a call from a Colombian druglord, Ira.  He, and his henchman, Ralph (Danny DeVito), is holding her sister for ransom, demanding the map that was sent to her by sister’s now-dead husband. Off she goes to the Amazonian rainforests, carting along the map but unaware that a far more sinister threat is on her trail: Zolo, the bloodthirsty head of a local militia, the one responsible for her brother-in-law’s murder. Zolo successfully sidetracks her from Ira by mismarking her bus, and soon she is stranded in the jungle.

Zolo almost gets the map, but along comes an American ne’er do well, a lone mercenary named Jack Colton (Douglas), whose recent livelihood of bird-raising has just gone kaput. He accepts her offer of $375 to direct her to a phone, a well-earned sum considering he now has to evade two parties after Joan’s coveted map. But Jack may be considering finding the map’s treasure first, before anyone – after all, he can use the priceless gem to fulfill his dream of sailing around the world. When Joan learns of the plan, he convinces her that it would make a great bargaining chip for her sister’s life, but she (and we) isn’t so sure, particularly after Jack separates from her with the jewel in his possession. Joan brings the map to the kidnappers, she and sis are free to go, but Zolo has already gotten to Jack, demanding the goods (Jack, apparently, was good to his word). But when the renegade general clutches the gem in the grubby little palm of his hands, an even hungrier crocodile rips that hand (and jewel) right off, and it’s just a matter of time before the rest of Zolo is fed to those reptilian maneaters. Back at home, Joan uses the experience for her newest bestseller, but longs to see Jack again. Conveniently, on the city street, she finds her long-lost beloved, with his boat, bought by the gem he retrieved, and they “sail” down 5th Avenue together.

I literally hadn’t seen the film in 32-odd years since seeing it now, and it holds up remarkably well. The reasons for its freshness back then – updated adventurism, coolly adult tone – are what make its so resonant (and nostalgic) nowadays. At the time, some critics called it derivative of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but its screenplay was actually written before that film’s release. And despite their comradeship, I don’t think Zemeckis had Spielberg’s classic on his radar – Stone is actually more akin to The African Queen than The Perils of Pauline, and all the other serials that are Raiders’ inspiration. Its focus is more on the est of female longing – the possibility that the Harlequin dream can co-exist in the nascent era of female empowerment.

And somehow, Douglass made it fresh, too. His Jack Colton is a loner, a not-entirely-chivalrous hero but not really Steve McQueen either. He has a sensitive side to him, but that may yet be his fault. Thereafter, Douglass made a career of playing the confused, postfeminist male – working between concepts of manhood and masculinity, and the ever-increasing hegemony of the female presence in society, for better or worse (usually worse). Turner, too paved her own archetype too: the mousy turned stalwart adventure heroine, and one which she herself would mine in future roles as well.

My only complaint: the ending. It sort of squeaks by, given the fairy-tale tone, but it feels all too easy – maybe the hint that she’ll meet up with him someday, or should it take place long after her Colton-inspired book? Again, it’s all in the tone – same reason Pretty Woman’s uber-happy ending worked too.
But it’s a nitpick. This is grand-slam entertainment of the highest order. A favorite from my childhood, and a classic for the ages.


Rating:  ****


Friday, May 12, 2017

The Verdict (1982)




It’s a complete shock to me that Fox didn’t include my next selection, The Verdict, in their 75th Anniversary box set. Ok, I can understand the omission of Porky’s, Taps, and even 9 to 5, but The Verdict? It’s a bona fide classic, in every sense of the word. It garned five Oscar nominations, unanimous critical praise, and took in a decent take at the BO too.

And looking at it now, some 35 years later, I just can’t believe how f**cking good it is, mostly because of its brilliant screenplay, doubtlessly one of the greatest ever written. It’s tight and taut, without a single superfluous scene, and craftfully structured so as to keep you absolutely riveted for its complete two-hour-plus running time. And the dialogue is also top-notch, sharp and witty without being overrwrittren. Who’s to credit? None other than David Mament, potentially the greatest screenwriter of modern times.

And no, I shouldn’t undermine Sidney Lumet’s role as director – ho knows enough to let the lines breathe, without excess direction. (The film, in fact, does more with silence than I initially remembered: a lost art these days.) And he knows he enough to let his actors act, notably his lead, Paul Newman, who is allowed so much free, uninterrupted reign in his performance that at times I felt like I was watching live theater. It’s easily a career achievement – it’s a shame he didn’t get the Best Actor Oscar for it – that year Ben Kingsley was a slight upset with Gandhi - instead winning for his reprise of Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, four years later.

But seeing the film also made me nostalgic for its era, roughly the years 1977 through 1983, when so many mainstream films were literate and well-crafted, handling serious-minded topics like crime, courtrooms and corruption, and tackling head-on social concerns like labor reform, environmentalism and racial/gender equality. (Newman himself appeared in some of them, like Absence of Malice, and examination of journalistic ethics, and Fort Apache, The Bronx, about the plight of urban law-enforcement.) At the time, I think, we took thee films for granted; now they come off looking like classics, what with the current, worrisome state of studio filmmaking.

Paul Newman is Frank Gavin, a Boston lawyer who, after a history of career missteps, has become a pathetic, boozing ambulance chaser. His partner, Mickey (Jack Warden), has found a promising case for him: a pregnant woman went into a hospital to deliver, was given the wrong anesthetic, and is now in a vegetative state after suffering cardiac arrest. Frank takes the case – his clients are the woman’s sister and her husband – but realizes he’s up against a goliath, as the hospital is owned by a rich and powerful Catholic archdiocese, represented by a prestigious law firm headed by Ed Concannon (James Mason). They offer Frank a settlement of $210,000; at one time he would’ve accepted, but now, especially after discussing he case with a doctor who’s convinced his colleagues in question were negligent, he’s ready to go to trial.

But Concannon plays hardball: the doctor Frank talked to and was hoping to call as a witness, has mysteriously “disappeared,” and the judge has also denied Frank’s request for extension, clearly angered that the lawyer is going to trial in the first place. His only comfort of late seems to come in the form of a woman he’d met at a bar – Laura Fischer – and things in general seem to be looking up when he finds another doctor to testify. But the MD isn’t so great under fire, and now it appears that Laura is a stoolie for Concannon. Frank’s only hope comes in the form of the admitting nurse, who testifies that the pregnant woman had eaten too soon before the procedure, a fact covered up by the defense. Despite Concannon’s best efforts to strike the nurse’s testimony from the record, it’s enough to convince the jury of the hospital’s guilt, and Frank wins the case, against all odds.

Perhaps The Verdict’s greatest asset is in how completely and totally sympathetic its protagonist is. I mean, you really want this guy to win, no matter what. (He may be the most likeable movie lawyer since Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.) This is, in essence, a more cerebral Rocky, and like Rocky, much of that has to do with the delineation of Frank’s character, complete with hard-luck backstory. But yet, there’s still a spark in his eye – the feeling that he has one more case left in him, even if it is buried deep under layers of despair and self-defeatism. There’s a great scene, early on, in which we can see this spark: he goes to the hospital to look at his comatose client, taking Polaroid shots of her as evidence. And as the pictures develop and images appear (in a long take), Frank gets his epiphany – we can tell by his eyes – and his resolution is palpable.

Why are we so drawn to films such as these, courtroom dramas in which lawyers rise to the occasion to uphold justice? Perhaps we’re so jaded by the legal system, besieged by news stories in which money-hungry lawyers defend the patently guilty (even though it’s their job), or accept easy, windfall payoffs without fighting for their convictions. As a society, we know we need lawyers, we know we need cops, politicians, etc., but we also ten to foster a damaging mistrust of them, one that seems to get worse with each passing year. So when we get a film about a noble politician (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) or a noble cop (Serpico), we celebrate it, and it becomes a hit, then a classic.

I tend to see movies in parts these days, given my time constraints, but when I started The Verdict, I would up seeing the whole thing in one shot. It’s just that gripping. And that doesn’t happen to me much.



Rating:  ****



Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Porky’s (1982)

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My next choice of a Fox movie hat was neglected in their 75th Anniversary box set is Porky’s.

Yeah, that’s right: Porky’s. No, it’s not as classy an inclusion as, say, Gentleman’s Agreement, or as socially meritorious as The Diary of Anne Frank. Doesn’t have the literary chops of The Grapes of Wrath, and its Oscar nominations, 0, is nowhere near the haul of All About Eve’s 14.

But Porky’s is still, nonetheless, a classic. It became a phenomenal, surprise hit, raking in over 100 million against a budget of 25, despite near-universal negative reviews. And, probably most importantly, it begat a genre – the teen-sex comedy, a pop-cultural fixture for anyone who came of age during the Reagan era. So, face it Fox – you created this monster; own it, it’s yours, whether you like it or not.

But why was it such a huge hit? It’s funny, sure, but not hilarious. It produces knowing snickers, not guffaws. The acting, meh, the dialogue, pretty raunchy for its time but still nothing to set the world on fire. Why such a blockbuster?

Easy one. The shower scene.

Full-frontal nudity had been allowed in major films a good 12, 13 years prior, the floodgates opening with a 1957 Supreme Court Decision and then later the 1968 dissolution of the Hayes Code. American studio films like Medium Cool, M*A*S*H, Woodstock, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango In Paris and The Last Picture Show showed female full-frontal nudity, mostly in fleeting shots but there nonetheless. This trend continued into the late 70s/early 80s - films like The Shining and Tarzan, the Ape Man come to mind – but overall the majors were decidedly shy about going all the way.

And then came Porky’s, in March of 1982. I remember it vividly, staying up late one night to watch it on HBO (which is how most preteen boys saw it, no doubt). At about the hour mark, with no buildup, just a simple cut from the black-eyed face of a supporting character (I’ll explain later), we see a medium-long shot of six “teen” girls showering, a POV shot of three male characters looking through a peephole. The one in front is facing us – we see everything – while the others are turned away, but wait! The next shot reveals all six to us - breasts, pubic area, everything. And that’s just what I thought when I saw this for the first time. Shit, they’re showing everything!

Because before this, they really weren’t. Carrie had a girls shower scene, but it was kind of foggy from the steam, and done in artsy slow-motion. Porky’s was crystal clear, and on the screen it must’ve been like the invention of Cinemascope. The only analogous example would be the shower scene from 1978’s Debbie Does Dallas, but that was porn, and because porn was only in theaters only perverts and dirty old men watched it. And even after, the multiple-girl shower scene was kept to a minimum, even in the genre Porky’s spawned. Of this lot, only 1983’s Private School had the guts to try it.

The funny thing is, I’m not even sure writer/director Bob Clark knew that would be his film’s selling point – his goal was to make a 50s coming of age film, replete with sex, sex. sex, and the full nudity was just necessary to make the obsession as accurate as possible. But Fox knew what they had; in fact, the shower peeping was the entire marketing campaign, on the posters and in the TV and movie trailers and everything. It sure as hell worked; Porky’s was the fifth-biggest grossing film of 1982.

And in looking back, shower-scene-cultural-significance aside, it’s not at all a bad film. The critics, though, had a field day with it – their main objection was the way it objectifies women, looking at them the way the adolescent protagonists do, as pieces of meat to be had, objects to leer at and salivate over – and conquer sexually. This all may be true, but quite frankly that’s what the film is about, and no, it’s not pretty. High school boys are flesh-masses of raging hormones, and their antics do happen to be sexist – they have all the social and relationship skills of tree fungus. No one criticized director Bob Clark’s other nostalgic film, A Christmas Story, over Ralphie’s obsession over getting a Red Rydrer rifle; why then did they take up arms over the same type of film with a timeframe only ten years removed?

I suppose a common response might be – the hooting and jeering over women may have more negative consequences, even in the conservative 50s, and that may be a valid point. My favorite male-coming–of-age film of all time, Saturday Night Fever, is a more mature film about sexual frustration, in part because it shows the ramifications of its lead character’s lusty ways – in one now-considered-rape scene in another near-rape scene, both involving women he failed to understand on a personal level. Perhaps Porky’s could do well to explore this more, but who? All its characters are horny and sophomoric, and anyways that isn’t exactly the tone of the film.

But the funny thing is, as randy and ribald as Porky’s sexual humor is, it really isn’t part of the main plot, occurring only as episodic vignettes throughout. In the beginning, we’re introduced to a bunch of middle-class teen boys from Angel Beach, Florida, circa 1954:

·   Tim Cavanugh, sort of the ringleader but a hopeless bigot, mainly because of his brutal redneck dad.
·   Billy McCarty, the tall, lanky one.
·   “Pee Wee,” inexperienced but more than making up for it in eagerness.
·   Tommy Turner, whose penal misadventure leads to personal vendetta by the girls’ head coach.
·   “Meat,” the big guy, so-named for…. ahem.
·   Brian Schwartz, the discriminated-against Jew, who turns out to be the sanest one of the pack.
·   Mickey – learns his lesson at Porky’s, the hard way.


First, they get suckered into a prank in which they expect to score with a prostitute, only to have the pranksters scare the bejesus out of them with the woman’s big, black husband, a machete-wielding murderer. Then, one of the boys’ basketball coaches is curious to discover why Miss Honeywell, an insanely attractive girls’ coach, is nicknamed “Lassie”; he finds out when they have sex in the locker room and she howls uncontrollably, and audible to the entire school. Then, of course, the shower scene, with Tommy’s pecker getting pulled by Miss Balbicker like a bird pulls a worm out of the ground. And though it all, Pee Wee tries to get laid by Wendy, a girl he likes, which ostensibly happens during the end credits.

But the main theme here isn’t really about sex – it’s about the class wars between an upper middle-class community and its local, redneck neighbors. The boys of Angel Beach make the mistake of treading beyond their flamingo-strewn front yards, into the no-man’s land of the Everglades, where a club named Porky’s promises strippers and hookers aplenty just for the asking. Not perceiving they’re not wanted there, they pay up, only to get dumped into the swamp. When Mickey vows revenge, he is severely beaten by Porky’s thugs, who also happen to include the local police force. Now its time for the boys to get revenge; led by Schwarz (now redeemed in the eyes of his oppressor), and backed by the local sheriff, they concoct a scheme to drag the entire establishment into the bayou. Returning home, they get a hero’s welcome from the marching band.

And so it is for this reason that Porky’s actually holds up pretty well, even more than most of the entries in the gene it helped to create. But like many of these entries, like Fast Times and The Last American Virgin, it’s also rather grim and despairing. Most of the action here relies on humiliation, either self-imposed or inflicted on others (all of the pranks, Porky’s turf wars), and so it does leave a somewhat bitter taste after watching. (Perhaps that’s why so many critics derided it.) But again, that’s adolescence, and in the 50s, with racism and sexism so rampant, it was even worse.

So definitely a mixed bag here, but certainly more than meets the eye, and an indisputable classic no matter which side of the fence you’re on. But ultimately I give it:


Rating:  ***

(Oh, and BTW, Clark directed its sequel the next year: Porky’s II; The Next Day. Only 30 milion, a box-office dud. And guess what? No shower scene.)




Monday, May 8, 2017

Taps (1981)

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Note: This is the second of five titles I chose, to fill in the six-year gap in the Fox 75th Anniversary DVD collection. I remember liking it when I first saw it on cable back in the early-eighties, and it has since become well-regarded, if for no other reason than being Sean Penn and Tom Cruise’s film debut. Is it a classic? Probably not, at least not yet, but I feel it is considerablre enough to merit inclusion on this blog.


There’s a scene in Taps, about a half-hour in, in which the headmaster at an all-boys military school, a general played by George C. Scott, speaks to a cadet as to one reason why the school is closing. “We’re a dinosaur,” he tells the boy. “You read books, see movies. Military men are all seen as a little bit crazy, out of touch. I guess we are a little bit crazy; we have to be.”

The general couldn’t be describing real-world perceptions of the American military any better. By the late 70s, in the post-haze disillusionment of Vietnam, after Nixon ended the draft and Carter forgave the draft-dodgers, the country had an enormous distaste for all things military – its blind obedience, its rigidity and its destructive nature. Hollywood reflected this distaste with a flurry of decidedly antiwar movies about the Vietnam experience; most of them did well critically and commercially, their audiences clearly agreeing with the politics they espoused.

But Tinseltown knew there were also millions who respected our military, recent, unpopular wars notwithstanding, and reflected their voices in films too. Almost to make amends, the studios pumped out four major films about WWII in 1979 – 1941, Yanks, Hanover Street and Force 10 from Navarone – all of them a less-serious than their Vietnam counterpats and far more reverential. We got your backs, guys, seemed to be the message to the flag-waving public. And by the early 80s, another approach: comedies about army enlistees (Stripes, Private Benjamin), and how the service made their respective protagonists better people. By 1982, we turned to romance, with the redux old-fashioned An Officer and a Gentlemen, and it was a smash hit. It was cool to wear bars again.

And then in 1981: Taps, a drama about what happens after the students at a military academy take over the school upon learning that their institution is slated to be razed to make room for condominiums. The boys, ranging in age from seven to seventeen, are almost all depicted sympathetically – they’ve used their military training and concepts of heroism and honor to serve a purpose they feel strongly about. But what makes the film so gripping is our knowledge that their mission is completely suicidal, and perhaps morally wrong, even it does befit the mantra that’s been instilled in them at the academy. So while what Scott says is accurate in that particular scene, we the viewers can’t help but wonder: perhaps this – the violent takeover of government property, even if noble in intent – is what caused the military to fall out of public favor in the first place.

Timothy Hutton, fresh off his success from the previous year’s Ordinary People, is Brian Moreland, student at the Bunker Hill Military Academy, and now the ranking cadet after being promoted to major by the headmaster, General Harlan Bache. But Bache has sad tidings for his graduating class: Bunker Hill, within a year, will soon be torn down to make way for a set of condos. Moreland is stunned; Bache tells him it’s not just about the money but the stigmatizing of the military in recent years, and implicitly counsels the lad to “fight for his honor,” the most noble of all endeavors. Things get pretty hairy, though, when the local punks try to start something up, and one of them winds up getting accidentally shot with Bache’s pistol. He gets taken away, and suffers a heart attack while at the hospital. Moreland, stirred by Bache’s rhetoric and the feeling that he has a duty to uphold, barricades himself up in the school. He, along with friends Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn), David Shawn (Tom Cruise), and the rest of the entire student body, turn Bunker Hill Academy into impregnable fortress, budging only if his demand to negotiate over the school’s closing is met.

But right from the outset, things don’t look so promising. Moreland’s talk with his martinet father doesn’t go well, nor does a tête-à-tête with a colonel, whose line of establishment reasoning just doesn’t accord with the rebellious passion of the entrenched cadets. To make matters worse, their water is cut off, food is running low, many cadets give up and leave the fight, and Shawn and his “red berets”’ hair-trigger temperaments become increasing hard to moderate. With hundreds of national guard soldiers waiting outside, just a single spark could ignite a fire, and it does – one of the young boys freaks out and runs to the gate, only to get brutally gunned down. Moreland realizes the only way out is total surrender, but as he and the others “fall in” and head for the gate, Shawn, fully armed and ready for a fight, pops off the colonel, leading to a firestorm. Moreland attempts to stop his crazed comrade, but they both die in a hail of gunfire. Dwyer mourns the loss of his fallen friend, as we end wit a scene from the earlier commencement – happier, more promising times.

Taps, taking its name from the taps played for the fallen at the film’s opening, and will presumably be played again after the newly fallen, is a perfect title for the film’s theme – that there can be little difference in he honor men fight for in conventional conflict, and the self-assigned honor that may result from conflicts of personal choice. As Moreland rationalizes, midway through the film, “Why can’t we fight our own battles, instead of the ones chosen for us once we get out into the world?” Sure it makes sense, according to our spirit, but our head tells us otherwise – this is pure folly, which can only result in disaster. (As the colonel tells us, dying is only one thing: bad.) In the film’s ironic dénouement, Moreland realizes this, but he has proselytized the minds of a few too many, the ones who won’t take “no” for an answer.

It’s easy to question why so many boys would be willing to lay down their lives for their school, of all things, but that’s why the George C. Scott character is so important. As General Harlan Bache, he’s the elder statesmen here, essentially playing Patton once again, and the man who puts the ideals of glory in his lads’ pie-eyed heads. Although only in the first half-hour (and given top billing), he lends a quality of reverence to the film, filing our heads with these grandiose ideals (that reading of taps for all soldiers, representing all American wars, is a classic). Grandiose, that is, until we realize that the age of Patton is a bygone era, and perhaps it well should be.

Taps also made me think of the more recent incidents of militia men and their takeovers of compounds, or sites of state property. Sure, the ages are different – these are actions of those who presumably know better – but aren’t their ideals the same, and don’t they rationalize their actions in much the same way as do those cadets?

I shouldn’t close without also mentioning Timothy Hutton – perfectly cast as the unlikely leader, a boy, really, fraught with insecurity but ready to stand for his principals. The script has also endowed him with a compelling backstory; in the film’s most emotional scene, he confides in his friend Dwyer that his stiff-lipped father ordered him to cry for only fifteen minutes over his mother’s death. (I was envisioning Bull Meecham, the Robert Duvall character from The Great Santini.) This imparts the film wit another great theme: the parents – the ones so concerned about getting their boys out – have already sown the scenes for this catastrophe with their steely militarism.

A terrific, somewhat underrated film. And, as I recall, my dad liked it too.


Rating:  ****





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