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.