“Our goal is not only to educate the boy, it is to develop the man, to plumb potential, to nurture it in an atmosphere of strict discipline and intensive training.”
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the military came under close scrutiny in terms of its role in American society of the time. Hollywood mirrored that scrutiny with the release of a number of films in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s that addressed the rights and wrongs of the war directly. Less common were films that looked at other military aspects such as the relationship of the military to government or to the civilian population. Taps (1981) was one such, addressing the issue of military academies and their role in shaping young men for a career in military service. The film has now been released on DVD by Fox Home Video.
Bunker Hill Military Academy has a long and rich tradition of turning out cadets who later go on to fine military careers on behalf of their country. It is end of term and cadet Brian Moreland has just learned from the Academy Commander, General Bache, that he will be promoted to major and become the chief cadet for his forthcoming senior year. At the commencement celebration, however, General Bache announces that the school’s board has decided to sell the property for a condominium development. The school will have one more year and then will be demolished. During a graduation party soon thereafter, a fight breaks out between cadets and a number of town youths. General Bache intervenes, but his ceremonial pistol that he had thought to be unloaded discharges, killing one of the youths. Bache is arrested and the board decides to advance the school closing so as to be effective immediately. Under the leadership of Moreland and his class mates, the cadet body decides to take over control of the Academy hoping to overturn the board’s decision.
The premise of Taps is a compelling one on the surface — that a group of cadets could take over and continue to hold their military academy as a matter of principle in the face of potential police and army intervention. Yet despite the supposed altruism, the film too often gives us the sense that this is about little more than personal gain. The school is at risk because the Board of Governors sees an opportunity for financial gain by selling the land for condominium development and attaches little importance to the Academy’s long history and tradition. The cadets ultimately respond mainly because the oldest of them (their leaders), despite pious statements to the contrary, see their graduation year and the perks that would accrue to them during that year disappearing. It’s summer break and the cadets remaining behind anyway are initially content to follow their leaders. We eventually see how little commitment many of the followers really have.
I say eventually because Taps would be a more effective vehicle if director Harold Becker had exerted a firmer hand on the material. As it is, the film drags noticeably after the half-way point and since the ending is inevitable anyway, the whole thing just limps to a predictable conclusion. The script telegraphs the fate of most of the principal cadets early on and the cadets that you expect to survive do and those you expect to die do also. One question: where’s the rest of the Academy’s staff when the cadets decide to take over? The Academy’s commander may be quite a guy, but he’s not running the school by himself.
Taps trades on George C. Scott to set up its story. It evokes his work in Patton to suggest that his character in Taps, the academy’s commander General Bache, is something of a paragon of virtue — father figure to his students, the career militarist with an illustrious past now dedicated to the future of the academy he leads and its students. It’s a fine performance by Scott, but unfortunately it’s too brief. His character is gone from the screen by the quarter mark of the story and the film is never as interesting thereafter. The ranking cadet entering his senior year, Major Brian Moreland, is blinded by Bache’s surface luster and oblivious to the possibility that much of it is show and bluster, he allows himself to believe that a takeover of the school is warranted. As the cracks in Bache’s reputation begin to appear, the decision to take over the academy begins to weigh heavily on Moreland. Moreland is played with some finesse by Timothy Hutton, then seemingly on the threshold of a very promising career having just won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for the previous year’s Ordinary People.
As one looks back at this film, one of the things it’s often cited for is the early appearances of Hutton, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise. Penn and Cruise both have roles as subordinates to Hutton in the leadership of the cadet revolt. Penn acts as a sort of conscience to the whole takeover, while Cruise is the gung-ho follower eager to use arms. Both come through with fine performances although Cruise’s is a little over the top at times. It’s interesting to see where the three are 20 years later. Hutton, after flirting with stardom in the 1980s, has generally fizzled. Cruise is a big star, but little more than a pretty face as an actor despite occasional suggestions of greater depth. Penn has proved to be the most talented of the bunch, although one can tire of his holier-than-thou attitude to script selection.
Fox delivers Taps in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that does a good job of presenting what is a very well composed and photographed film. At least it does for the first two-thirds. Colours are bright and faithfully rendered. Flesh tones are accurate and shadow detail is very good. Much of the concluding third of the film looks a bit dark, however, and the colour, particularly flesh tones, looks slightly off.
The disc provides three Dolby Digital sound tracks — 4.0 English surround, 2.0 English surround and 1.0 French mono. The 4.0 mix provides little noticeable difference from the 2.0 mix which is actually very effective. The film is dialogue-driven, but punctuated by marching music and occasional gunfire and heavy equipment movement effects. The latter elicit some good response from the surrounds during a presentation that is otherwise dominated by the front and center channels. The sound is generally rich and vibrant although low frequency effects are minimal. Subtitles are provided in English and Spanish only.
Supplements are minimal. An English theatrical teaser and trailer are included as is a Spanish trailer. Trailers for four unrelated Fox films also appear: Cast Away, Edward Scissorhands, Planet Of The Apes (1968), and a version of Romeo and Juliet (1996) that probably has Shakespeare spinning in his grave. Oh, and Fox is still persisting with its obnoxious “Are you ready for Fox DVD video” intro that starts off the disc by default.
Taps is not a bad film; it’s just executed in a mediocre fashion that causes one to lose interest after the mid-way point. That’s too bad, because the premise is an interesting one, even if it becomes muddied by a script that eventually loses focus. Generally good performances and the pleasure of seeing George C. Scott in action even if too briefly make this one worth a rental, but nothing more unless you’re a Scott completist. Fox’s transfer is pretty good though inconsistent. If the company would wake up and make a bit more of an effort on supplementary material for its catalogue items, not to mention do away with that annoying Fox DVD video opening, it would certainly help.