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TAPS (1984)

Taps pretends to examine a clash between the military, which gets its idealism from Patton and the Pentagon, and the new society, which gets its idealism from computers, home economists, real estate developers, and Erma Bombeck.

The question it raises – Do we need military schools anymore? – is all but bludgeoned to death in a spray of gunfire as everything in the film gets annihilated in the crossfire of confused motives.

You go away saddened and depressed without even knowing what you’re supposed to be depressed about. What begins as food for thought ends up a big mess.

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George C. Scott, in an ageing pastiche of his Patton role, makes an all-too-brief appearance in the opening scenes, playing the general who runs a highly respected old school called the Bunker Hill Military Academy.

“Man was meant to be a warrior . . . we’re all sons of our Viking fathers” is the motto he delivers between old stories about long-forgotten battles at the dinner table. Honour is the talisman by which he lives, and generations of cadets have adored him for it, looked up to him and tried to emulate him.

Timothy Hutton is the highest-ranking student, the boy with all of the best qualities of leadership, the cadet most likely to become a star at West Point.

But there is bad news: After a century and a half, the board of trustees has decided to close down the school and turn the property into real estate blocks for condominiums.

The outside world, with its capitalist greed and its disregard for the value and endurance of traditions, believes military schools are anachronistic and soldiers passé.

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The old general came here when he was twelve and spent the rest of his life in uniform. He has no intention of giving up his fight now. When a local punk agitator is accidentally killed in a brawl at the school dance, public opinion rises in a rage against the school. It is ordered closed immediately. Following his beloved general’s philosophy, Hutton convinces the other cadets they are the real proprietors and must defend their home.

With military talent for organisation, the boys take over the school, turning it into a fort against the outside world, confiscating the weapons in the school arsenal, and (just like in real life) an act of aggression turns into a full-scale war without anybody wanting one. This hypothetical situation turns into a microcosm of the world situation, as the boys imitate adults (a trace of Lord of the Flies here) in a cold war that turns the school into a battlefield.

The most important thing they’ve learned from the old general is “Defeat and dishonour are worse than death,” but the old man has just died of a stroke (eliminating Scott from the film early and freeing him for other film commitments) and the boys are left to fight to their own devices.

The school turns into a trashy, sentimental metaphor for Vietnam with obvious factions representing the US military and the Viet Cong. Practically everyone in the film is riddled with bullets and tear gas and by the end, the cast has been reduced by half. Small boys lie in pools of blood and guts, and one of the hothead cadets who took his role too seriously even stages his own My Lai massacre.

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The helpless, horrified viewer who lasts this long will learn like so many disillusioned soldiers do in battle, that honour doesn’t mean much when you’re holding a dead child or staring down the barrel of a National Guard rifle.

Some people have called Taps a fascist movie, but it doesn’t even really have the courage of that conviction. It is not sympathetic to the military and it doesn’t show much humanity toward civilians, either.

The gung-ho cadets and even the cowards are played with honesty and fervour (look closely and you’ll spot Tom Cruise and Sean Penn); the bewildered civilians are handled with just the right amount of moralistic confusion. But they’re all on their own, fighting not for beliefs or issues but for close-ups.

Director Harold Becker treats them all like clichés auditioning for body bags.

General Harlan Bache
George C Scott
Brian Moreland
Timothy Hutton
Colonel Kerby
Ronny Cox
Alex Dwyer
Sean Penn
David Shawn
Tom Cruise
Charlie Auden
Brendan Ward
Edward West
Evan Handler
Derek Mellott
John P Navin Jr

Director
Harold Becker

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