Taps (1981) — Fight for your right to study

“It’s beautiful, man!”

Sue’s rating: To your left, your left, your ultraconservative right, your left…

Sue’s review: A long time ago (1981) in a galaxy far, far away (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania), three young actors partook in their first significant movie roles. Okay, to be fair, one of them, Timothy Hutton, had already hit the big time by winning an Oscar for Ordinary People and was considered to be a sure bet for super-stardom. Who knew? However, the other two would later achieve notoriety by doing things like hitting photographers, marrying Madonna, and dancing on Oprah’s sofa like an absolute loon. Eventually they would eclipse Mr. Hutton in the Hollywood firmament. Again, who knew?

This was before Fast Times at Ridgemont High, before The Outsiders or Risky Business. This was before John Hughes got his teen-angsty little mitts on the eighties. This was the beginning, and — as PoolMan is so eager to point out to everyone on the planet — I was there.

As the movie begins, Bunker Hill Military Academy has been taking turning out officer-quality cannon fodder for over 140 years. It’s sort of a West Point prep school. And as can be seen in the first ten minutes of the movie, they’ve got it down to a fine science. Those fellers sure do know how to march and scowl!

Unfortunately, the sneaky and anonymous Bunker Hill board of directors has decided that everyone would be better off if the school was closed and the property sold to build condominiums. At first they agree to leave the place open for one final year, but then the headmaster has sort of a bad day, kills someone, has a heart attack, and you know… could have happened to anyone. That cancels their year of grace pretty definitively.

This all happens at the very beginning of summer break, so the faculty seems to be largely (which is to say, completely) missing. However, when the senior cadet, Brian Moreland (Hutton) discovers that his school is kaput, and that the adults don’t seem to want to take him seriously — no matter how shiny his buttons are or how well he calls cadence — he and his buddies decide to take action.

In point of fact, they take over the property and confiscate an armory full of weapons and live ammo. Very calmly, they let it be known that they’ll give it all back as soon as someone listens to their side and presents a reasonable plan for keeping the school open. They tell this to the pencil pushers, then they tell this to the police, then they tell this to the parents, and then they tell this to the National Guard. Can you say “escalation?”

Now this, ladies and gents, is where Sue takes on sort of a split personality. Remember, the first time I watched this was 1981. When I decided to write this review, I hadn’t seen it in over 20 years. I was a teenager then. I have a teenager now. (In a jar. On my desk.) My conflict is something like this:

Young Me: That’s right! Make the adults listen! Stupid old farts!

Old Me: Are they nuts? No one’s going to listen to a bunch of gun-toting pimple poppers!

Young Me: But they’re right! They’re protecting their way of life! Standing up for what they believe in! They’re acting with honor!

Old Me: They’re felons and they’ve just flushed their collective futures down the toilet. Someone needs to be taken behind the woodshed, yes indeedy.

Young Me (singing): We shall overc-o-ome! We shall over-

Old Me: Oh shut up.

Young Me: Make me.

Actually, that’s the crux of the movie. It’s teenage rebellion, writ large and with M-16’s.

Taps isn’t exactly a fun romp of a movie. Far from it. What I like about it is that the conflict doesn’t seem all that contrived. Both sides of the story can be sympathized with, and the tension builds beautifully throughout.

Another really interesting point to note is that the work of Hutton, Tom Cruise, and especially Sean Penn is proof positive that these guys had serious acting chops right out of the starting gate. Hutton has “honorable and earnest” honed to a fine edge. Cruise plays Shawn — a total hard-core Rambo-wannabe who probably sprinkles gun powder on his corn flakes, and Penn shines as Alex, a poor schmuck who is torn between a very clear view of the big picture and his dedication to his friends. Good stuff. Very good stuff.

In many ways Taps represents my coming of age from cartoon naivete to an appreciation of serious and dramatic fims. (And coincidentally, an appreciation for serious and dramatically hot males. Whoooooeeee.)

I recommend Taps. Seriously, I do. My only caution is that the language is pretty rough for a PG movie – mostly because PG-13 hadn’t been invented yet. Otherwise, enjoy!

Lissa’s rating: LOST ate my brain and I’d better review something SOON or I’m gonna be taking a pay cut.

Lissa’s review: Despite coming into my teens in the eighties, I had never seen Taps. That sort of surprises me, because I think I probably should have, and the set up (The Man wants to take away the military and the kids resist!) sounds like it should be on the shelf next to the Police Academy movies, and my family was really into Police Academy. (Explains a lot about me, doesn’t it?) Plus, it stars Tom Cruise and Sean Penn (a very young Tom Cruise and Sean Penn), which is really pretty funny. Fortunately, someone who actually had seen the movie must have put it in the drama section, so I never saw it. Oops.

I also had never heard much about it, to be honest. Taps isn’t one of those high profile films that has everyone talking about it and quoting it 25 (yes, Sue, 25) years later. There’s no snazzy special effects or anything, and yeah, the movie isn’t funny. It’s also not Dead Poets Society set at a military school, which was what I was expecting. But it was good.

You know what Taps reminded me of? And I’m not sure if this will be a spoiler or not, so beware. It reminded me a bit of Ender’s Game. Not in the plot, per se, although the ending had a bit of similarity, but in the feel and the theme. I’m not sure why, but if you enjoyed reading Ender’s Game, give Taps a shot.

Wow. That’s a pretty random comparison. But it makes sense to me. Really.

So. As mentioned, Taps focuses on a bunch of cadets who are being kicked out of their military school to make way for condos. Led by Timothy Hutton, they batten down the hatches (metaphorically) and take over the school after confiscating its armory. Interesting setup. I do feel compelled to point out that Taps was filmed at Valley Forge Military Academy, which is right down the road from us. I’d actually really like to teach there someday. So there’s a little bit of “hey, look! That’s right near us!” But I would have liked Taps if it was filmed in Timbuktu (although I suspect it would be a very different movie).

As I said, Taps wasn’t really what I was expecting. The setup sounds pretty out there, and it does sound like something made for a comedy. It could be a comedy. You almost expect John Belushi in it, or Bill Murray. I guess I was thinking more Stripes or something. So when we got this movie that was actually a serious conflict between the cadets and the civilians, and really got these kids in over their heads and not knowing how to handle their rebellion, I was surprised and impressed. I’m always a bit amazed when someone can take a setup I’d call laughable and make a really good movie out of it. I can’t say I believed the situation would happen, but if it did, I’d believe it would play out the way it did in the movie.

It seems sort of like cheating to say I was impressed with the acting in the movie. I mean, Tom Cruise (my least favorite), Sean Penn, and Timothy Hutton? It’s kind of like saying Darth Vader is Luke’s father. I mean, we’ve all seen these guys in movie after movie after movie. (I will say that while I never found Tom Cruise attractive, he’s even less attractive as a teenager. Heh.) We all know they’re good actors when they want to be. So this isn’t exactly statement of the year, here. But regardless, as Sue mentioned, these guys showed from early on that they actually got acting jobs based on acting, and not just being attractive.

What I found most interesting about Taps was the way the situation just completely spiraled out of control. It’s not the most cheerful scenario, but I think it’s the most realistic, and I honestly felt sympathy for both the kids and the adults. And the ending did choke me up a little bit.

So overall, good movie, worth seeing. Enjoy!


  • During the reading a very small part of the list of deceased alumni, they managed to touch on every conflict from the Civil War to the (their) present day.
  • Over a hundred boys were going to be stuck at school throughout the summer, but apparently not a single faculty member stayed.
  • Considering all the weaponry and the cadets’ familiarity with it, we never actually see a firing range.
  • The sound of fifty or so assault rifles being readied and aimed simultaneously is truly awesome – and probably enough to make a local sheriff consider a career change.
  • George C. Scott was definitely channeling his inner Patton for this role.
  • Technically, not even one-star generals are supposed to give alcohol to minors.
  • Beware of boys in red berets.
  • Diesel engines that go roar in the night are pretty darned frightening.
  • Gas and electricity are wonderful things, but maybe not together.
  • I hope someone was remembering to clean up after the horses during the siege.
  • If all the adults really thought that Gen. Bache was a nutcase, why was he the headmaster of the school?

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