There are films that stay with us for many different reasons. They may remind us of something, someone, or a specific time in our lives. Other films elicit strong emotions, positive and/or negative. Still others seem like they are taken from our own lives.
But sometimes a film gives us a glimpse not only of our time, but also of the time in the life of our country and of the wildly divergent perspectives of various generations.
Two of them have come to mind to me recently: “Easy Rider” and “Taps.” Though both movies are about experiences of the young, one tells a tale of an escape from and rejection of tradition and order. That 1969 movie was embraced as iconic by those who came of age in the late 1960s. “Taps” of 1981 is also a rebellion, but one that longs for tradition and order in a time starting to recover from the mayhem wrought by those who listened and followed the message of “Easy Rider.”
I was in the late 70s/early 80s “Taps” generation and when it came out I was indeed following its lead. Its plot centered on the cadet takeover of a military school about to close down due to local social resistance and the thinking that the school’s military culture was out of date and therefore obsolete. Though I wasn’t planning any martial academic coups, I was then a young U.S. soldier stationed overseas. The clash between the military ethos and the modern civilian ethos was an idea I was just beginning to understand.
I think these two movies are reflective of a radical shift in the attitudes of the young. In less than fifteen years the counterculture that had won the kulturkampf had spawned the counter-counterculture of, if you recall the scene (here in the trailer), a burgeoning youth society that could identify with uniformed teenagers aiming their M-16s from above at those who would replace tradition with modernity, a culture of honor with one of passive mediocrity.
Those cadets were having none of it.
While Peter Fonda and Dennis Hooper were roaming America on their motorcycles seeking hippie metaphysical enlightenment in “Easy Rider,” just over a decade hence Tim Hutton, Tom Cruise and George C. Scott were defending the flags of their own fathers and grandfathers in “Taps.”
Now you may be saying, and justly so, “Easy Rider” was lauded by the usual suspects and is considered a classic while “Taps” made a shallow splash in the cinematic pool.
However, “Taps” had a hand in confirming a generation’s, my generation’s, respect for time-honored sacrifice even in the face of overwhelming odds. For as you also may remember, the cadets are overrun and lose in the end. That denouement rings like the words of Horatius in Macaulay’s “The Lays of Ancient Rome”: “Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the Gate: ‘To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better, than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods.’”
Yes, the Ronnie Cox character in “Taps” tries to dilute the martial message and there is some bedwetting stuff that plays an anti-military note. But they are minor items and easily dismissed.
The end of “Easy Rider” is similarly mortal, through trite and a hint at the pervasive loathing concerning anything not of Manhattan or L.A. that was soon to engulf American pop culture and does again today.
The 60s film proposed America as an ignorant racist nation. The 80s film disposed of that canard with brio. The latter film largely acts as an antidote to the former.
As such, though vastly overlooked in comparison to “Easy Rider,” “Taps” deserves to be watched, pondered, and, when the times call for it, heeded.