Taps (1981)

“Tom Cruise in his second film role!” a sticker proudly proclaims on the 25th anniversary release of this film. It seems to have been added later, possibly to push sales of the film by riding the name of the biggest star of the lot. Sort of a shame, because the film has some better actors in it–Timothy Hutton (fresh off of his Oscar-winning role in Ordinary People), Sean Penn, George C. Scott, Giancarlo Esposito, Ronny Cox. Unfortunately (?) none of them ever wandered into the “movie star” realm (except a brief flirtation in the 1980s for Penn) that means that you just plaster their name all over things and people take interest, whether it’s good or not. I’m not saying Cruise is necessarily a bad actor, or even that his role doesn’t intrigue me, but simply that this is just a tag that screams of marketing over anything interesting in the movie itself. At least Cruise’s role is reasonably large and it isn’t jumping on a cameo to sell it.

At Bunker Hill Military Academy, Brian Moreland (Hutton) is part of the rising senior class, attending a brief and intimate dinner with the parting Cadet Major and the commander of the academy, General Harlan Bache (Scott), where he is promoted to Cadet Major, the head of the student body, for the next year. After this honour is bestowed, Moreland returns to his dormitory to see his roommate, Alex Dwyer (Penn) and fellow rising senior David Shawn (Cruise). Shawn has his company of “red berets” perform a drill in the hallway to honour Moreland, while J.C. Pierce (Esposito) congratulates him and offers to gather food for him from the care package fellow student Shovel (Jeff Rochlin). At the parade that celebrates the end of the school year, Bache announces the bad news–the school is to be closed in one year. Distraught but confident after a speech Bache gives Moreland in private, the students finally attend a last dance. Resentful “townies” catcall the dates the cadets are bringing and harass them from just outside the school grounds. A scuffle turns into a brawl, which Bache wades in to try to break up. When one of the locals jumps on Bache’s back, he reaches around him and draws Bache’s sidearm, the trigger squeezed in a brief moment, killing one of the locals. Bache is shocked that he managed to leave a round in the chamber and is carted away by the police. When a news report announces that now the school is to be closed immediately after this event, Moreland makes a plan to take back the school and hold it until they are given a chance to fight for its continuation. Many of the students who were to stay for the summer session join him in this, including even the youngest of cadets like Charlie Auden (Brendan Ward) and Derek Mellott (John P. Navin, Jr.). They take the arms that were stockpiled and hold the school against the police, accepting attempts by parents–including Moreland’s own father, Master Sergeant Kevin Moreland (Wayne Tippet)–and eventually even the National Guard, represented by Colonel Kerby (Cox) as they doggedly fight to keep their school open and alive.

It’s interesting enough to hold a position like I do on the military, never really able to discuss it logically with many, and yet another to see a film like this. I am neither the overtly militaristic type nor the anti-military type, and don’t get along terribly well with the most fanatical elements of either. I think that the overly emphatic beliefs of those who devote the entirety of their minds to the idea of war are disturbing and out of touch with reality to a dangerous extent. I do not mean those who devote their lives, necessarily, as it is one thing to devote a life, and another to devote one’s mind entirely. The opposite side has this silly idea that somehow you can have a country in this world and not maintain a military, or criticizes the military for forcing soldiers to accept killing and death. On the first thought, it’s absurd when you live in a world where there are other people who will only respect or give pause for competing power. It can incite and promote conflict, to be sure, but it’s highly unlikely that any country would be let alone–especially one that maintains a large role in world affairs–if they did not keep any form of defensive force. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be used, of course (such as in aggressive actions of any kind), but the absence seems absurdly naïve to hope for. The second note, of training soldiers to accept death, is only logical: it’s the only way to perform that job. This is a very strange position to hold, it seems, neither sneering at soldiers nor feeling the urge to salute their “endless, amazing, perfect duty and sacrifice” or what have you. I am opposed to conflict, but not to the idea of a military.

That’s a pretty long discussion of my personal beliefs on the subject, I realize, but there’s a reason for that. This film shows an interesting point of view on military training (even if it is technically civilian military training), with General Bache suggesting that Moreland should never be ashamed of humanity, and that it is humanity that keeps any leader from being a tyrant. The students are not all automatons or typically divisive. Shovel–whose name almost definitely comes from the idea of shovelling things into his face–is not constantly abused and taunted for his weight and eating, but neither is it ignored. “Plebs” (the new class of students) are harassed, but the understanding motivation of it, the idea that this is simply ritual, is actually conveyed to these new students instead of just openly abusing them. Few seem to be on power trips, or of that dangerous sort of future soldier that just wants to shoot things–with the notable exception of the overly aggressive Shawn. It’s a view that building military leaders is an honourable affair, not something derided by director Harold Becker for its “insane militarism” nor steeled to a sharpened edge of “awesome badassness.” Shawn is shown as dangerous–as either side of the issue should think he is–but nearly everyone else is muddled. Dwyer is not quite the sharp student that Moreland is, but Moreland is truly friends with him and respects him. He’s also not a slacker in an open caricature sense, having a greater sense of humour and a more open conscience than anyone else, but never derided as a poor cadet for this reason.

It’s a fascinating approach that makes the films points a lot easier to understand and digest. This is a stance that is rarely taken, with films usually either promoting the military agenda or slaughtering it wholesale, in either end case only ever preaching to the converted. The military and the building of officers is treated with respect and honour, drills, marching and the skills and leadership the school builds and maintains all being portrayed as affairs of disciplined and honourable intention. The military approaches Moreland begins to use to control the campus are not ruthless or bloodthirsty, and are rooted in this sense of honour he was given by General Bache. His motivation is solid and good, his intentions as well, and his actions, while not terribly smart or good, are generally well-carried out and reasonable, insofar as such actions can be. It’s only after they’ve hold up in the school for multiple days that it begins to come clear what the movie is saying. This isn’t a deplorable action by rebellious students as the outside world thinks (the outside world being a little cartoonish, but this is offset when it is contrasted with the cadets), it’s a misguided action by cadets who mistake themselves for full soldiers. They have enough training that it ends up a relatively professional affair, but they are still young and not yet ready to take on the responsibility of the entire action for themselves. Most of the adults from the outside world bear nothing of Bache’s respect for his students and deride them openly as insane or mere children, with only Kerby attempting in any fashion to actually understand and reach Moreland. He treats him with respect without pretending his actions are acceptable, but that only proves that Moreland is too lost in his nebulous definitions of “honour” and “duty” to really perform any action so grand.

For a cast this young, this is very well carried out. Scott (who, of course, is one of the ones who isn’t young) has an unusually pleasant warmth to his role (at least, as compared to what I’ve seen him in before), being truly fatherly and kind to his students, respecting and honouring them in everything he does without going terribly lax on the discipline they are there to learn and receive. Hutton has wandered into a role that is pretty tough and full right after a similarly difficult one, and he proceeds admirably. A verbal confrontation between Kerby and Moreland through a fence manages to highlight both the skill of Cox and Moreland and of editor Maury Winetrobe, with some nods to Becker and those behind the cameras. There are lingering shots of purely physical emotional reactions on these characters that don’t feel forced but contain no words, showing that Moreland is losing his grip on his belief in the righteousness of his cause just as he attempts to deal with the grief of the unfortunate happenings that have led to this conflict in the first place. It’s a telling shot for Hutton especially, showing a fight to maintain the emotional neutrality that will allow him to carry this out as his grief and frustration fight to break him down. Penn is caught in that most interesting role, the slacker who is not quite a slacker, who is respected even by the best students, a truly good friend despite whatever flaws he has as a student. Cruise is the most caricatured of the characters, a hothead who wants nothing more than to be a soldier–so he can shoot things. He treats the whole thing like kids playing war, never fully recognizing the reality of actual conflict and death, the thing that Moreland struggles to acknowledge maturely despite never being given the chance to deal with the idea. Cruise is very solid and believably out of control, but isn’t doing anything terribly complex at the same time. Evan Handler (who would go on to various sarcastic, vaguely-weaselly roles in the last decade or two) portrays yet another of the commanding officers, Lieutenant West, who is torn by a devotion to Moreland and a recognition that this is all out of their control, possibly the most mature of all the responses any of them has to the events. Esposito is a sort of a sidelong mirror to Penn, playing J.C. not as a polar opposite, but as another cadet who respects, admires and likes Moreland and does his duty, but does it more as a duty born of respect than friendship. He is not dropped completely into the role of regimented soldier, but he’s edging more toward a soldier with hints of civilian than Penn’s openly civilian attitude.

This isn’t a perfect movie, of course, as the entire concept raises some questions as to what on earth would possess anyone to think that taking a school by force was a good way to be heard, but that is sort of the point at the same time. Even the very young Ward and Navin manage to bring a lot of character to their roles as “pleb” freshmen, mixing that growing sense of pride and duty with the fear of very young children. It’s disconcerting to say the least, but that’s the point as well: these are kids-in-training, not full-fledged soldiers, and they are not really prepared emotionally for this, no matter how well-trained they may be. The film is absolutely successful at this, and clever at choosing a back door into this idea and message, avoiding insult to the cadets it’s portraying while criticizing them harshly but reasonably.

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