begins with a black screen as the credits roll, while a male choir sings
“Onward, Christian Soldiers”. These are revealed to be military
cadets at Sunday service, the ritual of which is always concluded by a reading
from the Book of Remembrance, a list of graduates fallen in combat over the
century and a half of the school’s existence, given by the commandant,
Gen. Bache (George C. Scott). The scene as filmed recalls the opening of
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton. A title, not shown on CBS, is
reported to cite Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians: “When I
was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
When the nation was no mere child but a veritable infant, it fought a battle at Bunker Hill and lost, and its army suffered great deprivation at Valley Forge. Taps was filmed, not coincidentally, at Valley Forge Military Academy, which is renamed for the purposes of the drama Bunker Hill Military Academy.
In the first part, the school is ordered closed to make way for condominiums. As at Valley Forge, the cadets finally organize their supplies and induce military order amongst themselves. In the second, they make a hasty defense of the place, and as at Bunker Hill, are not only outgunned by a professional army (relatively speaking... it’s the National Guard) but leave their rear exposed to the enemy.
An important strand of the tale is a town-and-gown controversy that leads to bloodshed. These are, I believe, the terms under which Taps is to be received.
The noted piety of our forefathers is evoked from the outset and the character of their quarrel, which is not over something not theirs. The bewildering surrealism of the filmmakers has placed this in the light of the present day, as far as possible, within the structural limits of the drama.
The result is, I should think, a shock to one’s sensibility as a modern civilized person who goes to the cinema expecting to be entertained after a fashion. Baron von Steuben might cut a ridiculous figure as played by Tom Cruise in a historical film, but as here in the guise of a gung ho cadet partial to drilling, the mind is greatly eased at the representation.
That another interpretation of Taps is so widespread as to be a commonplace has not escaped my notice. MASH, too, is thought to be an antiwar film pure and simple. In all seriousness, there are genuine difficulties in devising a proper analysis of Taps which must be addressed. Some of them I have indicated. Overall, the impression created is certainly an echo of the Britishers’ merry jape, “The World Turned Upside Down”.