I remember confusing TAPS with Red Dawn when I was younger, and the two of them would run in endless loops on cable. While neither film has aged particularly well, TAPS suffers from its post-Vietnam jingoistic voice and a story that you simply don’t want to buy into. The film’s set at the fictitious Bunker Hill Academy slated for closure (a victim of being run by a board that wants to sell the land to a condo developer). George C. Scott’s General Bache as a brash, clichéd military man who Timothy Hutton’s Cadet Major Brian Moreland sees as a father figure. After Bache is removed from the school for his role in a townie’s death, the board decides to close the institution down immediately. The students, led by ranking cadet Moreland, take over the school, stealing some additional rations and using the contents of a conveniently stocked armory on campus to aid them in their cause. The remainder of the film then superficially explores the breakdown of the student body revolt.
We’re supposed to side with the kids. We’re supposed to feel empathy for Hutton’s character and his disillusionment in the institution. In reality though, the only character I was truly pulling for was Ronny Cox’s Colonel Kerby — sent in by the governor to stand down the children’s insurgency. Cox’s performance is believable and moving. And the strongest scene in the entire film is where he confronts Moreland at the school gates.
Kerby: What in God’s name did they teach you in here? What did they turn you into?
Moreland: A soldier, which is the only thing I ever wanted to be!
Kerby: A soldier? No, goddamn it, I’m a soldier, with the career goal of all soldiers. I want to stay alive in situations where it ain’t all that easy to do. But you, my friend, you’re a death lover. Oh, I know the species. Seventeen years old, and some son-of-a-bitch has put you in love with death. Somebody sold you on the idea that dying for a cause is oh-so-romantic. Well, that is the worst kind of all the kinds of bullshit there is! Dying is only one thing: bad. Don’t find that out. Please.
The scene also undermines the credibility of Bache, who disappears less than a third of the way into the movie and may or may not be a joke outside of the academy’s walls. I would have loved for the movie to revisit Bache later in the film and explore the character’s authenticity. Without that deeper study, the audience misses out on that next layer of complexity for not only Scott’s character, but also on Moreland’s shot at either vindication or the opportunity to redeem himself for blindly following the man’s teachings.
I’m still not so sure that would have been enough to save the film. Although riding high off of his 1980 Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for his work in Ordinary People, Hutton is simply not believable as the leader and motivator of his peers. But it was his Oscar that propelled him to the lead role in TAPS. In fact, Sean Penn, who plays Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer, was originally slated to play Moreland. But in a sad case of the Hollywood machine distorting otherwise sound decision making, Hutton’s post-Oscar buzz prompted the filmmakers to swap the actors’ roles.
Like the lack of a Bache character study, I don’t know that simply restoring Penn to his originally intended role could save TAPS, but it certainly would have made for an even more powerful debut for the young actor. Penn’s Dwyer has a depth to him that belies his age. In a scene where he mocks the news coverage of the situation, both Kerby and Moreland’s authority, and fresh-faced Tom Cruise’s Cadet Captain David Shawn, Penn’s performance provides the only real counterpoint to what may be happening outside their beloved academy’s gated walls. It’s a scene stealing delivery that undercuts the credibility of the entire movie up to that point, and underscores what the audience is wading through.
The 25th Anniversary Special Edition replaces the 2002 barebones release. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is as sharp as it ever will be, especially for a movie that deals in the olive drab palette and which often features overcast or rainy scenes. The 4.0 Dolby audio presentation is fine for the dialogue-heavy movie. Director Harold Becker’s audio commentary is completely forgettable, often alternating between describing what’s on the screen, lauding the work of the young actors, and long bouts of silence. Much more effective — and far less tedious — is the 30-minute featurette, “Sounding the Call to Arms: Mobilizing the TAPS Generation”. Apart from its self-important title, it provides more insight into the film than has probably been previously available and all that anyone is ever going to need to know about the film. Rounding out the features is a seven-minute featurette called “The Bugler’s Cry: The Origins of Playing ‘Taps'”, and the full complement of TV spots.
TAPS is one of those movies best left in the vault. The plot is thin, and the storytelling is tiresome. The only things to recommend the film are the performances of Cox and Penn. Sure, there is the curiosity factor: These were Penn’s and Cruise’s first major film roles; this was Hutton’s first post-Oscar win role; this was a chance to see Scott basically reproduce his Oscar-winning portrayal of Patton a few years before he officially reprised the role in The Last Days of Patton. None of that, though, is enough to suggest it to any but those who are already fans.