Film Review: Taps (1981)


Modern video games allow little boys to play soldiers with realism and intensity unimaginable to previous generations. Few decades ago, little boys had to use different alternatives to achieve the same aim, like those described in Taps, 1981 drama directed by Harold Becker.

Film is based on Father Sky, novel by Devery Freeman. Plot takes place in fictional Bunker Hill Military Academy, educational institution with long and glorious history and led by charismatic General Harlan Bache (played by George C. Scott). He has managed to imprint values of honour, duty and sacrifice to numerous generations of students, including the latest one, which includes Cadet Brian Moreland (played by Timothy Hutton). He has just been promoted to rank of Cadet Major, thus becoming the highest ranking of all students. Next day General, to everyone's horror, announces that the board of trustees decided to close the Academy and sell its premises to real estate developers, with students given a year to finish their semesters and seek transfers to other military academies. This reprieve is revoked following fight between students and local boys that ended with fatal shooting and General being arrested. Moreland as the most senior cadet takes command of the students and decides to save his beloved Academy with the force of arms. Students take over the armoury, fortify the Academy and make demands that the Academy remain open. Authorities react by surrounding the facility with police and, later, by National Guard units commanded by Colonel Kerby (played by Ronny Cox). A siege begins, with Moreland seemingly oblivious to the fact that time and numbers aren't on his side and that the conflict would ultimately lead to predictably tragic outcome.

Decade after Vietnam War and Hollywood pandering to anti-establishment sentiments of young audiences by promoting rebellion against militarism and tradition, Taps signalled certain swing in attitudes. In the film youngsters are rebelling not against, but for the tradition and conservative values. But the most interesting detail most viewers are going to notice is the impressive cast. George C. Scott is great in the role of a general, which, in a way, almost explicitly references similar roles in Scott's careers – generals he played in Doctor Strangelove and Patton. His absence in the second part of the film is more compensated by his younger colleagues, including those, like Sean Penn or Tom Cruise, who made their respective debuts only to later become major Hollywood stars. Hutton is very good in a complex role of young leader who only gradually realises that he is way over his head. Penn is good as his friend and voice of reason, while Cruise shines as young militaristic maniac whose gung-ho attitude would bring film's bloody and tragic conclusion. Ronny Cox also delivers great performance as no-nonsense military officer who unsuccessfully tries to reason with Moreland and thus evade bloodshed.

Great acting serves this film very well, because it effectively hides many of its flaws. Becker's direction is poor, especially in action scenes which are confusing and unconvincing, including the scene depicting fatal incident. Script also too conveniently make the General the only adult at the Academy, and his absence too conveniently leaves students without supervision and allow them to stage their little doomed revolution. On the other hand, some sort of realism is achieved through use of locations at real Valley Forge Military Academy, as well with actors going through real life military training in order to convincingly play boy soldiers. In the end, Taps is very effective film, although most of those who see it will feel fortunate to live in the world where Call of Duty and Battlefield serve as excellent substitute for the real thing.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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