French director Francois Truffaut once claimed “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” Now, obviously that’s a bold and possibly overly broad claim that can be debated till the cows come home, but it is also an interesting framework to use when examining Taps, the 1981 military themed drama that starred George C. Scott as well as pre-fame versions of Sean Penn, Tom Cruise and Timothy Hutton.
The basic plot of Taps is simple: some faceless bureaucrats decide that they want to shut down a prestigious military academy so they can sell the land the school sits on to some real estate developers. The young cadets who are attending the academy are so loyal to their beloved school that they stage a sit-in on the school’s grounds in protest. Well, a sit in slash armed stand off, because the first thing the kids do is raid the school’s armory and use the rifles they steal to keep the cops / their parents / the National Guard at bay. The situation (predictably) spirals out of control and ultimately ends in bloodshed.
The obvious interpretation is that the film is fundamentally anti-war because its dramatic arc climaxes with a long speech performed by Timothy Hutton (who plays the leader of the rebellious cadets) where he basically lays out a case for pacifism; the formerly hawkish teen has come to realize that his goal (while potentially noble) was not worth the bloody price that the cadets paid in their attempts to achieve it, and that all the big talk about “honor” and “sacrifice” that he grew up on might have been empty BS. It would be a mistake to automatically conflate “liberal” with “pacifist” – there are quite a few neoliberal hawks out there – but in 1981 such an anti-war stance would definitely have been associated with the left, which had crusaded against the Vietnam War for many of the same reasons that Hutton lays out in his monologue.
However, the movie can also be used to make a very conservative point, because the inciting incident only occurs because the faceless bean counters don’t realize how important the school is to the kids that go there. None of this mayhem would have happened if those bureaucrats had just respected the military tradition they were trusted with safe keeping – after all, the school seems to be well attended and is thus presumably financially viable, so there isn’t an obviously compelling reason to close a 141 year old institution just to turn a quick buck.
Which means that a viewer’s conception of the film’s ultimate message is dependent on what type of argument they think the movie is making. If you think the script is making a linear argument then you would conclude that Taps' ultimate claim is that militarism is bad because it robs children of their innocence if not their lives; but if you think it is making a reduction ad absurdum argument (where you start from an apparently sound premise, methodically show that your premise inevitably leads to an undesirable outcome, only to reverse course and claim that you’ve proven that we should reject the original premise) - well, in that case you would have to conclude that Taps is a pro-military movie that says that we need to Respect Our Troops ™ because if we don’t then everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
Now, I would describe myself as a pacifist so my first instinct is to side with the straight forward interpretation and claim that Taps proves that armed conflict is pointless, cruel and dumb. However, I actually can’t commit to that interpretation, because I don’t think the film earns it. My objection is simple: America is so in love with its military that I found Taps’ plot to be completely unbelievable.
For starters: I don’t believe that any of the schools trustees would ever want to sell it off because I’m assuming that many of them are former graduates and military people definitely love tradition more than they love money. Secondly, I don’t believe that real estate developers would want to buy the school because their developments would probably be worth more money if they were located near to a prestigious institution and not on top of an anonymous tract of land that used to be a school. And even if we grant that premises one and two are true and that the trustees would want to sell and the developers would want to buy I don’t think the kids would immediately start an armed conflict to save the school when the more logical next step is to have their parents (who probably had to work hard to get their kids accepted into the school) and the townspeople (who definitely benefit from living near a nationally known institution) raise hell about it at city meetings and town halls until state or local government comes in to nix the sale.
And given that I think the script really stretched reality in its eagerness to build its anti-war argument I cannot side with the (presumably) well intentioned liberals who made this film; I have to conclude that the conservatives are correct (in this case at least) that us pacifists are conniving nutbags who tell biased stories in a vain attempt to try to brainwash kids into believing that they would be better off if they didn’t spend a big chunk of their youth marching across the world with machine guns in their hands. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not endorsing the idea that there is an inherent nobility to trying to murder strangers in their own homelands, but I’m not such an inveterate liberal that I can’t admit when my side is issuing disingenuous propaganda.
So in conclusion: I don’t know if it is possible to make a true anti-war movie, but I do know that Taps is an anti-war movie that ultimately ends up being a pro-war movie, so in this case at least Truffaut’s maxim is true.
(And I also know that Taps is a garbage pile of a film, but you might have already surmised that at this point.)
Winner: The Cat