‘You Gotta Start Somewhere’ Films: TAPS (1981) Review

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Greetings, all and sundry!

Given the breather for the last fainting gasps of summer. Adapting to a wrist brace due to a late furniture move. And given time top ponder, roam, root around, unearth and play with one of the great concepts, mysteries and axioms of cinema. Its mystique and long time purveyors. Every film career has to start somewhere. Creating fodder for many night long discussions amongst those who take cinema seriously. Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman all got their starts in less than stellar, nor top of the line, B-Movies. As did Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner and Jennifer Aniston. And occasionally. Usually, once in a generation. A film comes along that introduces a sizable number of talents to swing for the fences. Or crash and burn.

My generation had The Magnificent Seven and Bonnie and Clyde. While later contenders could easily include M*A*S*H*, The Big Chill, The King of New York and The Usual Suspects. Which sent me digging even deeper. Back to a film that came and went within its prescribed two weeks. Made a respectable return on its medium sized investment. While bring ignored or completely misunderstood by elitist critics. And offered some intriguing first glimpses into a decent handful of today’s heaviest hitting talent.

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TAPS (1981)

Which begins on a warm early summer afternoon with Valley Forge Military Academy filling in for Military Academy Bunker Hill outside Philadelphia, Pa. It’s tall stone, brick and concrete walls enclosing many stoic and storied dormitories and barracks. And that years’ graduating class is going through last minute inspections and repairs to full dress uniforms. Sashes, sabers, epaulets and all as they prepare for their graduation parade and soiree.

Cadet Captains Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and J.C. Pierce (Giancarlo Esposito) trade fantasies about future sexual exploits that see a bit raunchy. Cadet Captain Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton), every inch a leader goes over his gleaming low quarters and checks his gig line for a meeting with the Commandant. Retired Brigadier General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott). While up the stairs and down the hall the Drill Team and Honor Guard march behind Cadet Captain David Shawn (Tom Cruise channeling Marine Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller from his Silent Drill Team days. Chest thrust out. Ramrod straight with an unblinking determined gaze). Prior to heading off to the prom’s Receiving Line.

Captain Moreland’s meeting with the Commandant fares both well and bad. With General Bache promoting Moreland to Cadet Major. Then informs him that the Academy’s Board of Trustees will be selling the school and its land to real estate developers. With a year before the deal is done and the Academy will be deactivated. That’s year’s Seniors and the following year are in the clear. Though those under classes will have to fend for themselves find other schools to matriculate.

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A wet blanket to be sure. As the two finish their brandies. Bache removes the magazine from his Colt Commander .45. Holsters it. Adjusts its belt and Moreland leads off to the festivities. That are fine well into the night. Until some local “townies” decide to crash it and hurry things along. A fight ensues. Bache draws his weapon, but it is taken during the fight. It goes off in the hands of a townie that kills another townie. Bache falls victim to a heart attack after he is arrested. And all Hell nearly breaks loose.

The Cadets and the cops intervene as Bache is taken away in cuffs. The townies start screaming to the Board of Trustees and local and state cops. While Major Moreland confers his upper cadre. Discussing strategies for a possible siege. Going over TO&Es (Tables of Operations and Equipment). Inventories. And making shopping lists for the immediate future.

Which arrives the next morning. The local and state police arrive with every intent of confiscating the Academy’s armory of rifles, pistols, ammunition and anything else that isn’t nailed down. Major Moreland receives them. Calmly attempting to negotiate to them and hopefully arrange a meeting with the Commandant and Board. The cops and Sheriff (James Handy) are polite, but really don’t want to hear it. Entering the armory. Only to be baffled by the suddenly missing weaponry.

It all appears suddenly. In the hands of the Cadets along the upper gang way as a trap is sprung and a Mexican Standoff soon develops. Escalation is slow. With a clutch of cadets sent out in a Deuce and a Halves and pickups for provisions. Which are purchased and stowed in the larger truck. As townies intervene. Only to be sent scrambling by Captain Shawn emptying a magazine of his M-16 into the air.

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Electric power in the Academy is cut off later that evening. And it’s shades of Waco, twelve years early from there on out. The cadets have back up generators, but not a lot of diesel to run them as perimeter guards are set. The National Guard arrives with an M-48 Patton tank and loud speakers are set up. As the parents of the cadets, led by Major Moreland’s father are called in.

The parents are quick to quash the idea that their sons are being held against their will. As the cadets unanimously decide to stay where they are. Defending their home while quite aware of the consequences. The National Guard’s Colonel Kerby (Ronnie Cox) comes forth and cons, cajoles and palavers with Major Moreland to no avail. Both are aware that things very well could end badly.

And that begins a few hours later. As one cadet is badly burned trying to re start a generator. An ambulance under a white flag enters and Major Moreland assembles the commanders and cadres who hold their ground as the ambulance leaves.

The following morning does not bode well. The troops are reassembled. Lead by Cadet Captain Ed West (Evan Handler), the ranks are asked if they would like to leave. Easily half stack their rifles and head for the tank protected gates. In the interim, Major Moreland ask for a meeting with General Bache. Only to be told that the Commandant expired from a heart attack after his arrest.

A memorial service is held for the Commandant as cohesion slowly slips. Egged on as the M-48 rolls up to the gate. A young cadet, “Bug”, (Billy Van Zandt) panics. wants to surrender. Drops his rifle as he runs forward. It goes off and the “fur ball of battle” makes itself known.

Disheartened, Major Moreland again assembles the troops and orders them to lay down their weapons and surrender. The cadre obeys. Except for Cadet Captain Shawn. Who takes a perch in his room with his rifle.

I’ll leave it right there for Spoliers’ sake…

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Now. What Makes This Movie Good?

A decently developed and executed look at life at fictionalized, though very close to home Military Academy or Institute. Who train young men for the rigors of West Point, V.M.I, or the Citadel in North Carolina. Teaching the fundamentals through recitation and discipline. While opening minds to histories of armed conflict and its great leaders.

And the cast offers a serviceable, at the time across the board pallet of candidates to fill future ranks. Sean Penn excels at being Tim Hutton‘s right hand man and sub rosa Executive Officer. Surprisingly level headed, though with an energy that is just waiting to burst out. While Tom Cruise is all smiles and charm. Until the only life and family he has known is threatened.

Each has their own scenes to steal and show an early master’s touch. Under the deft control of Harold Becker. Who would acquire lessons learned from this and earlier films, The Onion Field and The Black Marble. And apply them to later projects, Sea of Love and City Hall. Director Becker and screenwriters Devery Freeman, working from his novel, Father Sky. And Daryll Ponicsan (The Last Detail, Cinderella Liberty) make the film appear and feel much more than its disjointed, then quickly assembled parts.

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What Makes This Film Great?

The chance to see young talent. Either fresh from television or its movies given the chance to ply their accumulated craft and strut their stuff. And they do! As mentioned above, Penn and Cruise show complete familiarity and calm with this newer, larger medium. And what young aspiring actor wouldn’t jump at the chance to share lower billing with Actor Emeritus of the day, George C. Scott?

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Though, it is Tim Hutton and his Major Moreland who carries the film. Earning a Golden Globe Nomination for his performance. Showing all the requirements of a leader. Calm in discussion. Listening intently to every word before rendering a decision. Everything an officer and leader should be.Then revealing a hidden and very strong aptitude for negotiation, guile and tactics with the older, wiser uniformed “adults”.

His discussions with Colonel Kerby and later his father (Wayne Tippitt), an Army Master Sergeant (“God” to all lower enlisted) are worth close attention. Both elders want a peaceful resolution. Though both understand Major Moreland’s position and tenacity. Quietly reinforced by Giancarlo Esposito’s Cadet Captain J.C. Pierce. Who ramrods the younger perimeter guards and shows an extreme inner calm and cool as numbers grow beyond the closed main gate to slowly dwarf his own.

Cinematography by Owen Roizman shows a distinct appreciation and use of shadow and light touched on in his earlier Straight Time and True Confessions. While editing by Maurey Winetrobe is first rate. Making no one scene too long or too short. Solidly enhanced by an original soundtrack by Maurice Jarre.


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Thoughts on TAPS and or the ensemble cast? Let it be known in the comments.

Guest Review: The Hustler (1961)

Special thanks to my pal and regular commenter Kevin a.k.a Jack Deth for this in-depth review!

First, I’d like to thank Ruth for the opportunity to offer a guest review on her wonderfully enjoyable, informative site.

It’s not often that one is given the chance to rave about, offer insights or generally trash a film that piques my ire. Fear not. This review is positive in the extreme and a favorite film of mine.

Directed by Robert Rossen in 1961. The film tells the tale of ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson. Played flawlessly by a then, up and coming Paul Newman. Portraying the prototype of The Man With No Name made famous by Clint Eastwood under the direction of Sergio Leone in iconic ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ a decade later. Newman exudes supreme, cocky confidence and not much more.

What do we know about ‘Fast Eddie’?
He’s a pool hustler. Period. Nothing more.

Who with his partner and manager, Charlie Burns, has been plying his trade from Oakland to “The Church of the Good
Hustle”. Ames, by name. A walk up pool hall that resides in New York. Though could just as easily be Steubenville, Ohio. Hoboken, New Jersey. Or Gary, Indiana.
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The pool hall absolutely reeks of atmosphere as Eddie and Charlie await the arrival of ‘Minnesota Fats’. The man of legend. Jackie Gleason at his absolute best! Introductions are made and a marathon game begins with lush B&W overlays as the camera pans through the smoke hazed, shadowy room to a coffee house, Be Bop soundtrack laid down by Kenyon Hopkins. That only adds to the cat and mouse game played by two masters. As shots are made. Balls clack and travel into called pockets. Only to be racked and travel again.

Soon, another is added to the mix. George C. Scott as the silently watching, milk sipping, Bert Gordon. Who meticulously sizes up ‘Fast Eddie’ and finds him wanting. The match continues. Eddie loses and Bert takes Eddie under his wing. Playing rich, well heeled players in assorted halls and their opulent homes across the US. Life is good for Eddie, but not great. That happens when he happens across Piper Laurie’s Sarah Packard at a bus station, who instantly sees Eddie’s flaws and senses his damages are about equal to her own. Eddie and Sarah fall in about as close to love as either can manage. Which irritates, then annoys Bert as money is made and opportunities are sought. For Bert, to make more money. For Eddie and Sarah, any way to get away from Bert.
The opportunity arises, but not in a good way. As Eddie and Sarah break away from Bert. Only to have Eddie play fast and loose and have his fingers broken in a grimy hall just west of nowhere. Eddie recovers and is talked back into Bert’s good graces for another faraway game. Of Snooker. Not pool. Allowing Bert to have more than a slight hand in Sarah’s drunken suicide in a less than five star hotel room.

Which sets the stage for the final battle.

One that is more than worthy of the wait. As Eddie comes looking not for blood, but for money. Which to Bert is the same thing. Shots are made. Eyes shift and for once, Eddie is the Captain of his own fate.It’s a wonderful thing to watch. As Fats finally concedes. And Eddie wins. A Pyrrhic victory? Almost certainly! As Bert scarily shouts “You owe me MONEY!” And Eddie uses his newly applied leverage to verbally beat Bert down on percentages and cuts of the future takes. Before turning his back on Bert amidst threats to never play in a big time poll hall again.

Now. What makes this film good?

Many, many things. The B&W cinematography is near flawless. Especially at Ames. The pool hall where Fats plies his trade. Where shadows merge amongst the silent, attentively watching, down and out crowd to as one fluidly intertwined mass. The clarinet, saxophone, bongo drum and bass soundtrack may seem out of place at first, but quickly becomes part of the grim, desperate, close to grimy atmosphere.

The secondary characters all seem born to play their parts. From Michael Constantine’s world weary, ‘Big John’. To Murray Hamilton’s slimy, arrogant, southern gentleman, ‘Findley’. To Myron McCormack’s just looking to get by, Charlie Burns. All give their roles more than their best shot. And it shows!

What makes this film great?

Everything that makes it good. Plus watching three cinematic greats laying down their foundations early. Newman has never been more hungry and desperate. Planting seed that would flourish in later films, Cool Hand Luke and The Verdict. Gleason has never more completely owned a role. Physically or otherwise. It’s a treat to watch him waltz around a pool table. His eyes constantly seeking an unseen angle. While George C. Scott radiates silent, sinister evil. Rarely using his voice, but when he does. He scores!

Kudos to Robert Rossen for his screenplay and superb direction. Black & White works like a hand inside a glove for this film. Much more so than Martin Scorsese’s choice of color for his later, The Color Of Money, which has about one tenth the atmosphere. More than worthy of its two Oscar wins for Best Cinematography and Art/Set Direction. Though Newman, Laurie, Gleason and Scott were robbed of their Lead and Supporting Actor Oscars.


Have you seen this film? We welcome your thoughts in the comments.