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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Crushed Film Festival presents: Taps

Submitted by on May 5, 2011 – 4:30 PM18 Comments


The Movie: Taps

The Crush Object: Timothy Hutton

The Story: Brian Moreland (Hutton), a rising senior at Bunker Hill Military Academy, has just gotten a promotion to head cadet; he even got to sip brandy and shoot the war shit with his idol, headmaster General Bache (George C. Scott). Moreland's high won't last long, though — the board of trustees is shutting Bunker Hill down and selling the property to one of the go-to villains of the '80s, a condo developer. On top of that, during a scuffle with some townies the night of the spring cotillion, Bache ends up accidentally killing one of them, then has a heart attack while in police custody. Moreland et al. decide to occupy and defend the school, and unsurprisingly, the situation spirals out of control…towards the ultimate defeat. You heard me.

It's hard to believe Taps is 30 years old; I hadn't seen it in at least 20, and I remembered it as yawing between expository tedium and cringey earnestness. It's got a decent supply of both, but it's also much better done than I'd given it credit for.

Granted, much of it just doesn't make sense. The accidental shooting is McGuffinry at its most absurd (leaving aside entirely the fact that, as Roger Ebert pointed out, Bache is somehow the only adult on campus). Why does Bache have a gun at a dance at all, never mind one he says he thought wasn't loaded? Why is there the equivalent of a school picture of himself on Bache's desk? How does a K-12 academy have an armory stacked floor-to-ceiling with live ammo? Shouldn't the lead-cadet position go to a young man with a waist larger than 21 inches? (Hutton's silhouette here is that of a stalk of Queen Anne's lace.)

And yet, the movie stays up on an interesting tightrope; although it's "for" teenagers, it takes the side of the film's adults while still maintaining compassion for the misguided cadets and their high-minded foolishness. Moreland and company's fierce loyalty to Bache is perfect in its shrill pathos, because you've already started to sense that Bache is the armed-forces equivalent of a college infirmary doctor — a sense confirmed by Master Sergeant Moreland Senior (Wayne Tippit, a.k.a. Amanda Woodward's dad) in his lone, excellent scene, in which he girl-pleases at his son, "Oh, sweet Jesus — 'a code of honor'?" Bache is precisely the Mr. Racine type adolescents typically become ensorcelled by, believing that their fight is important and courageous when it's really just melodrama. The script does a great job making a teenage audience feel like the adults in the story Just Don't Get It, while at the same time making adults feel like the kids Just Don't Get It either.

For all that, the story's something of an abstraction, a parable, but under the circumstances, the dialogue is decent and the acting very good. Various fetuses in the cast include Sean Penn in his first big role; Tom Cruise as a psycho-hardcore cadet captain who lifts weights while listening to the Pointer Sisters; Giancarlo Esposito, calling the cadence; and that kid who played Cousin Dale in National Lampoon's Vacation. Evidently, the cast spent six weeks living at a military academy and getting the knack…except Cruise, who decided he didn't care for that shit, and decamped to a hotel. So, naturally it's his character who touches off the final firefight and gets himself and Moreland killed. He's a little screechy in it, but Hutton is very good, not coasting all blinky Adam's apple as he sometimes does; Penn is excellent; Ronny Cox as Col. Kerby has to deliver every line all "could you stop being 17 for five minutes and hear reason," and he's great too.

A couple of great shots close out the action — the choppers dropping in with the smoke bombs; and Dwyer carrying Moreland's body into a literal fog of war at the front gate.

The Backstory: Before my crush on Hutton finally spent itself, I'd trundled home with, or taped off HBO, everything he appeared in up through 1986 or '87. It's also a movie from that era that girls in the demographic tended to watch several times a year, because, like The Outsiders, it had something for everyone (whereas The Iceman had nothing for anyone).

The Embarrassment Level: I'd expected to have to peer around a big old eight to see the screen on this one; happily, though it's a bit odd, it isn't horrible. I'm embarrassed for George C. Scott, but that doesn't count. Two.

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18 Comments »

  • JenV says:

    So even back then, Tom Cruise was a dick.

  • Helen says:

    So glad to find someone else with a ridiculous teenage crush on Timothy Hutton. My crush was kicked of by Turk 182, which has a similar type of rebellion that seems really cool to angsty teens, but now makes me all old-ladyish "but it's vandalism!".

    I had Taos taped off the tv, and watched it far too many times. It made me cry uncontrollably, and I thought it was really deep… My friends all refused to watch it, and I'm thankful now I didn't succeed in forcing it on them.

  • Rachel says:

    I was a sheltered kid watching this at 2 in the morning at my grandma's house. (probably around 1990) It never occured to me that the hero might die, and it was almost traumatic when he did. Traumatized.

  • Jeanne says:

    I just looked at the cast list, and Evan Handler was in this too. I think I'll need to rent this just to see what he looked like back when he was young and had hair.

  • JB says:

    "Tom Cruise as a psycho-hardcore cadet captain who lifts weights while listening to the Pointer Sisters."

    I choose to believe that this happens in real life on a daily basis.

  • Todd K says:

    "Though it's a bit odd, it isn't horrible" pretty much sums it up. I've seen it once, about 25 years ago. Hutton was really, really good. We think of him first and last as a supporting actor, but he showed here that he could carry a movie. He was equally good a few years later in "The Falcon And The Snowman," in one of those tricky straight-man roles that can get overshadowed by a more flamboyant co-lead (Penn again).

    Thinking back on "Taps," and considering when it was produced, I wonder if it was supposed to be a Vietnam allegory. The cadets start down this road believing they're doing something high-minded and noble, but the longer it goes on, the more they're just digging their heels in; it seems they're never going to accomplish their objective, but turning back doesn't seem to be an option; people are suffering and dying needlessly; some people want out while others grow more fanatical about seeing it through. I don't think that angle occurred to me at the time. I do remember it being one of those movies you know you're not supposed to take entirely at face value, but the actual message remains opaque.

    A couple of interesting things I learned from the IMDb page: (1) This was released a couple weeks before the end of the year, and it had two Oscar winners plus a patina of seriousness. An intended prestige/awards picture that didn't make it on that level? There was a Globe nomination for Hutton, but nothing else from any awards body. (2) I didn't realize it was such a box-office hit, since it is mostly remembered as a curiosity with some prescient casting. It made 35 million in 1982, which would be close to 80 million today.

  • john says:

    As a ten-year-old, I thought I had tricked my mom into letting me see Stripes (which came out several months earlier) when in fact we were seeing Taps. They are *very* different films.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Todd, I believe it's actually based on a book, which came out in '79, and while the plot and focus are somewhat different — Bache apparently isn't as significant in the book — contemporary reviews suggest that it is an allegory. That it's Vietnam-based isn't a stretch, given the timing. Ebert's review, which I see I neglected to link to above, has more on this:

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19810101/REVIEWS/101010369/1023

  • Ebeth says:

    I, too, must fess up to my crush on Hutton. Mine started in the late 80s when they showed us Ordinary People in high school. Yeah, I don't know what they were thinking either. That photo makes it appear as though Hutton has no arms. Seriously skinny.

  • Ebeth says:

    @ John- hee! That must have been disappointing.

  • Kim says:

    I haven't seen this but now I think I have to. The description reminds me of Toy Soldiers which is about boarding school kids who defend their school from terrorists. And boy did I love that movie.

    (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103112/)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Kim, and that one had Wil Wheaton! Another skinny-yet-lovely young man.

    I didn't really crush Hutton growing up–for some reason I just never crossed paths with his work–but when he did the Nero Wolfe mysteries I fell hard. And he was wearing a yellow fedora so you know he had to work for it. He's aged really, really well.

  • ElizabethA says:

    Oh, Sars… you have unknowingly tapped (heh) into one of the most indelible memories of my early teens. My clique (I'm grown up enough now to admit that) and I were so enamored of the film that we spent the better part of our allowance/babysitting money on multiple viewings all that spring. This was when movies played in cinemas for longer than 3 weeks.
    Some of my girlfriends were so fanatical that they had memorized dialogue and spoke back to the screen, a la Rocky Horror. Oh, other movie-goers loved us!
    This went on (through the Oscar campaign, if memory serves) through the better part of that spring, culminating in a particularly embarrassing interaction with the LA County Sherriffs on the beach side of Hutton's Malibu home. To this day, a couple of old friends know they can get me to absolutely lose it simply by wailing at the top of their lungs, "But we found his hooooouuuusssssssse!"
    Ah, good times. Thanks Sars!

  • smartyboots says:

    Wow, I felt I had discovered Tom Cruise in this movie, and watched it over and over and *over again* on HBO (we had a pirate dish!). It was clear to me at the time that the only way to show him the depth of my feelings was to write him a fan letter inviting him to my prom.

    OH YES, I DID.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    That is awesome.

  • wendalette says:

    Oh my! During that time, I was a military brat and completely biased toward well-toned men in well-fitted uniforms. My first thought of that film was along the lines of "Oh so many pretty boys! In one movie! In uniform!"

    Oh Penn — what happened?

    Hutton — LOVE!

    Esposito — Awwwww!

    Cruise — I was insulted that his character was such a d*ck, but in hindsight, it inoculated me from the shock of his real-life Brooke-bashing, sofa-jumping antics.

  • Jaybird says:

    Man, I read that whole critique, hoping for some mention of a stolen can of tomatoes and the Statement that it made about Sticking It To The Man. Cruise was BORN to play Jack.

  • Gina says:

    "I didn't really crush Hutton growing up–for some reason I just never crossed paths with his work–but when he did the Nero Wolfe mysteries I fell hard. And he was wearing a yellow fedora so you know he had to work for it. He's aged really, really well."

    ^Yes. This. Hutton was BORN to play Archie Goodwin. I also like him as Nate Ford on "Leverage" — but his portrayal of Archie was really something special.

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