In Focus: TAPS (1981)

By Austin Raywood

In 1981 Timothy Hutton received the academy award for best supporting actor for his role in 1980’s Ordinary People. Although Ordinary People (a film now broadly forgotten) has been maligned for years after winning best picture over the, arguably, more relevant Raging Bull (1980), no critic has put down Hutton’s impeccable performance. Hutton’s best performance, however, was not as many people think in Ordinary People, but rather in the film he made the year after: TAPS (1981).

TAPS starred Hutton as a conflicted head cadet officer at a US military academy about to be closed for demolition for development into condos. The school’s headmaster is played by George C. Scott, once again playing an angry worn out general, i.e. Patton (1970) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), who vows to fight the closure on the grounds of honor and valour. That is until he is arrested after an unfortunate accident occurs during a fight between cadets and drunken townsfolk. When Hutton is informed of the school’s closure after Scott’s arrest, he conspires with his fellow cadet officers, Tom Cruise and Sean Penn – already incredible in his film debut, to take over the armory, and repossess the school by force. They do so, and it isn’t long until a National Guard unit led by popular 80’s character actor Ronny Cox is called in to deal with the situation.

It’s impossible to assess the importance of the film without discussing the time period in which it was released. In 1981 Ronald Reagan had just been elected following a massive surge of popular support and patriotic fervor. During the previous Carter administration’s reign the Soviet Union had made some rather grand moves on the world’s stage, including the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. A wave of fear and panic over Soviet expansion swept across the US in ways it hadn’t since the 1950’s. In response, Reagan had promised massive investment in defense spending and promised to combat Soviet advances worldwide. Even while the Regan administration was slashing US government spending across the board, the Pentagon’s yearly budget was constantly increased.

While TAPS attempts to address these issues, in doing so it actually ends up addressing the deep-set militarism long embedded in American culture and politics. At the beginning of the film, long before the hostilities begin, a scene takes place in the school chapel. Scott gives a speech about the nature of honour and integrity in the armed forces and then proceeds to name all of the school graduates who have died in combat since the First World War. It’s a subtle, yet obvious, indication that if you believe in these concepts, you may have to die for them. Much is spoken about the nature of honour and valour in the film. It seems as though every other one of Scott’s lines, throughout his short time in the film, contains the words. This is no script blunder though. Honour and valour, in their militaristic, highly noble and chivalric sense of the words, is what these cadets live by. They have been taught since childhood that it was the most important element of their characters, and therefore the most important thing in the world. Certainly not words they would want relegated to military video game titles as they have been recently.

This is something that isn’t just taught in American military academies but something that has long been in place in US society. As an American I can vouch for the fact that one is expected to lay down their lives and join the armed forces, if need be, at a moment’s notice. Even without the draft still in place American citizens are constantly hot-housed with military images and doctrines. Whether it’s right or wrong is entirely up to the individual, that’s not really what I’m discussing here. What I am discussing is what this film attempts to address.

Near the end of the film, Ronny Cox approaches Timothy Hutton and asks why he has children fighting alongside him. He replies, “In the final stage of any mobilization, the children, the seed corn, must be tapped.” Ronny Cox stares on in disbelief and asks “What have they been teaching you here?” When one of the children later dies due to an accidental shot from a National Guardsman Hutton breaks down and retires to Scott’s office to watch the school’s film for prospective students. Penn finds him there and Hutton says to him crying, “Honour doesn’t count for anything when you’re looking at a dead little boy.” The film never overtly  insinuates that the students’ quest for honour is wrong, or that their actions weren’t inherently noble, but what it tries to remind the audience that honour, valour, glory, chivalry and nobility all have costs and consequences. If you are to follow such a path, you must first question whether or not it’s worth such a price.

It echoes a Hal Ashby principle in his film Coming Home (1978). In this particular picture Jon Voight plays a wheelchair bound Vietnam veteran, and at one point he gives a speech to a group of high school graduates contemplating going to war. He says, “I’m not telling you to go or not to go, I’m saying there is a choice to be made.” And there is certainly a price to be paid.

While TAPS does explore US society and military culture it also contains incredible performances from some of Hollywood’s best young actors at the time. It’s interesting that the film’s two principle non-Oscar winners were the ones to have the far larger careers. TAPS is worth a watch for many reasons but particularly to see a seventeen-year-old Tom Cruise blast away soldiers with an M60 machine gun while screaming, “It’s fucking beautiful man!” Is it Tom? Is it?

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