Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rebels With a Cause

Chicago Sun–Times film critic Roger Ebert compared "Taps" to "Lord of the Flies," and I always felt that was a pretty good comparison.

William Golding's book about a group of boys trying — and failing — to govern themselves on a deserted island also was the story of "Taps," in which a group of boys from a military school — metaphorically stranded in the deserted island of the extensively walled campus — tried to function while under siege from outside influences.

Without giving away too much of the story, the school's commander (authoritatively played by George C. Scott) announced during an end–of–year parade/review that the school would be closed at the end of the next academic year. A real estate company had other plans for the property.

For awhile, hope that the school could be saved prevailed, but conflict soon reared its ugly head.

During a post–commencement dance at the school, a fight broke out between the cadets and some local boys. Scott's character tried to break up the fight, and his handgun was grabbed by one of the locals. It discharged, killing another local boy, and Scott's character was taken into custody under suspicion of manslaughter.

It was announced that the school would be shut down immediately, and the cadets closed ranks.

Conditions weren't quite as primitive for the cadets as they were for Golding's boys — at least, not at first. But, as the siege wore on, things got worse. The cadets ran short of food, then the water and the electricity were shut off.

The resourceful cadets, under the leadership of Timothy Hutton, attempted to restore electricity with an old generator, but the gas they were using ignited and one of the cadets was seriously injured. That led to a temporary truce so the cadet could be taken to the local hospital.

Hutton's character offered to end the standoff if asked to do so by Scott's character, but then he learned that Scott, who had suffered a heart attack after being arrested, had died.

The death of Scott's character seemed to break the resolve of many of the cadets; several had already chosen to leave when given the opportunity, and most of the ones who remained seemed to be too young to be dealing with combat–related issues.

Eventually, Hutton decided to end the occupation, but some diehards remained — including Tom Cruise (appearing in only his second movie), who opened fire on the National Guardsmen assembled outside the gate. Hutton and Sean Penn tried to stop him, but Hutton (along with Cruise) died when the Guardsmen returned the fire.

The movie came to an end with a flashback, but, as I recall, there was a clear sense that the surviving cadets would surrender, and the conflict would come to a peaceful conclusion.

To be honest, I was never really sure what the lesson of the story was. I gathered that it was some kind of cautionary or morality tale, but, whereas "Lord of the Flies" had some valuable things to say about topics like human nature, "Taps" never really seemed to make any statements or useful observations.

It seemed more inclined to criticize the military culture than praise it, which wasn't unusual at that time. The Vietnam experience was still fresh in the public's mind, and returning soldiers were greeted with derision and ridicule — a far cry from today.

The fact that the soldiers' reception after returning home has changed for the better is certainly a good thing, but it is important to remember that it had not changed that much when "Taps" was made. Ronald Reagan, after all, had just been elected president in a campaign in which his assertion that the mission in Vietnam had been a "noble cause" came under heavy fire.

In the late '70s and early '80s, the military was viewed with considerable suspicion by many — even though the draft no longer existed (registration did, however), and the nation was being defended by an all–volunteer Army.

If "Taps" was being remade today, three decades later, I believe the story would have to be drastically rewritten. I'm not entirely sure that would be possible, either.

"Taps" may only have been possible at the time it was made.

And that makes it a unique story.