Prior to the production of the film, the key actors -Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise and others - were required to participate in a 45-day-long period of orientation with the students of Valley Forge Military Academy. They were given uniforms, borrowed from their real life counterparts at the school and given authentic military haircuts. They slept in campus barracks and were subjected to the same rigors and hardship that all Valley Forge cadets went through. While most of the actors enjoyed and excelled at their orientation, Cruise opted to leave the training for the comforts of a nearby hotel until filming began.
Tom Cruise was originally going to play a background character in the film, but Director Harold Becker was so impressed by the way he conducted himself as one of the military cadets during rehearsals that he was offered the part of David Shawn. At first Cruise refused and then was finally convinced by Becker and Producer Stanley R. Jaffe play the role.
Sean Penn and a handful of other actors received military horsemanship training for the scenes as the leader of the school's mounted cavalry. He later stated "It's not like riding out on a backwoods trail-The trick is to salute, control the horse, keep in step with the other riders and try not to fall off."
Timothy Hutton accepted his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Ordinary People (1980) immediately after shooting on Taps (1981) begin. TAPS was the first film Hutton was seen in after winning his Academy Award.
More than 2000 actors auditioned for Sean Penn's role as Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer, which Penn won after being seen in a fiery performance in an off-Broadway play "Heartland" by the film's Casting Director Shirley Rich.
Ronny Cox was Harold Becker's original choice to play Colonel Kerby, but another unnamed actor was chosen and then fired two days into shooting his scenes. Stanley R. Jaffe immediately called Cox, who flew down the very next day to begin shooting his scenes.
The film was made and released two years after its source novel "Father Sky" by Devery Freeman was first published in 1979. The book was still in manuscript form when the rights were purchased by Stanley R. Jaffe.
Due to the 1980 Screen Actors Guild writer's strike, filming on the campus of Valley Forge Military Academy took much longer (60 days) than originally planned. It caused such a disruption that the commandant of the school subsequently advised his colleagues not to allow film productions at their schools. The next year both Valley Forge and the Citadel military academies denied filmmakers of The Lords of Discipline (1983) access to their grounds, leading it to be filmed in England instead.
Foley recording of cadets was done during filming during normal daily activities. Cadet marching was recorded during parade practice, requiring extra marching by cadets and adding to the disruption of daily life.
The film's title on the film print is TAPS, but many promotional materials, such as movie posters and video/DVD covers for this 20th Century Fox film have it spelled T*A*P*S. As the title had only four letters, like the same Fox studio's popular army comedy television series, M*A*S*H (1972) (and its precursor movie MASH (1970) also spelled it M*A*S*H the same for press materials), a studio decision was made to connect with this, and spell the film with stars between the letters for promotional materials. An opening titles clip from M*A*S*H (1972) is actually featured in the movie when the TAPS military cadets are watching television in the recreation room.
The scene where Timothy Hutton and Ronny Cox's characters are discussing terms was shot with three to four cameras, one of them operated by Director of Photography Owen Roizman. Roizman made a bet with Harold Becker for 75 dollars that his close-up shots would make the final cut of the film. It was Roizman's tight close up shots that made the final cut of the film, and Roizman who is 75 dollars richer.
The rainy weather caused numerous problems during filming. Harold Becker had to create four sets of call sheets for each day's shooting in case a scene taking place outdoors would be rained out and interior shoot would take its place. It also was very noticeable in the editing of the film, as cadets are seen wearing ponchos in one scene and none the next.
George C. Scott headlined this 20th Century Fox military movie. He had previously starred in, and won a Best Actor Oscar in another Fox military movie, Patton (1970). Scott once said of his role as Brigadier General Harlan Bache in TAPS: "I have sympathy for Bache. He's lived by the rules. His values were Patton (1970)'s values - duty, honor, country. He's a proud man, and the school officials won't give him his due. Of course, his influence on the cadets is imbalanced. Unfortunately, they have no perspective on the man".
Over two thousand young actors were interviewed to play military cadets in the movie. The film featured 650 real life cadets from the Valley Valley Forge Military Academy and College, most of them appearing in military parade sequences.
The uniforms in the movie were the normal uniforms worn by cadets. The embroidered shoulder badges of "Valley Forge" were changed during filming to "Bunker Hill". Then, the cadets of the Academy had no camouflage fatigues as a uniform. Filming continued into the summer after cadets' school year was over.
The film's TAPS title refers to, according to Wikipedia, "a musical piece sounded at dusk, and at funerals, particularly by the U.S. military. It is played during flag ceremonies and funerals, generally on bugle or trumpet, and often at Boy Scout, Girl Scout and Girl Guide meetings and camps. The tune is also sometimes known as "Butterfield's Lullaby", or by the first line of the lyric, "Day is Done". The term originates from the Dutch term taptoe, meaning "close the (beer) taps (and send the troops back to camp)". "Military tattoo" comes from the same origin." TAPS is bookended by such musical military parade sequences.
The Hargrave Military Academy (HMA) in Chatham, Virginia was turned down as a filming location by the school's management after learning of the film's storyline and not wanting to agree to the producers' request to want to erect a wall around the front of the campus.
Prior to principal photography, actors playing the military cadet leads underwent four weeks of military training at the Valley Forge Military Academy and College where the film was shot. The dozen playing the Red Beret guard of honor had to learn a very tricky rifle drill which involved throwing rifles to each other and back like juggling pins.
Most of the battle names mentioned during the film are well-known. Two lesser-known ones are from the Vietnam War. The first, Pleiku, is a town in the central highland region of Vietnam, the site of a U.S. base during the Vietnam War. It was the scene of a major Viet Cong attack in early 1965. The second, Plei Me, was a camp, forty kilometers south of Pleiku city, attacked and besieged in October 1965 by the 33rd Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army.
The film's main promotional tagline, "This school is our home, we think it's worth defending" is based on a line of dialogue by Cadet Major Brian Moreland ('Timothy Hutton) which actually says, "We have a home here. We think it's something worth defending."
According to Stanley R. Joffe: In a strange sense, "Taps" is like "Jaws," only rather than having a shark going crazy in a seaside resort, we have a trusted institution - something that has been part of the community for a long time - suddenly running amok.
Several military campuses across the U.S. were scouted as locations for shooting the film before the Valley Forge Military Academy and College (aka the Military College of Pennsylvania) in Wayne, Pennsylvania was chosen. These included Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia; Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana; Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia and Carson Long Military Academy in New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania.
The exterior shots of the film were shot at Valley Forge, but the interiors (including General Basche's office) were shot on sets built in Valley Forge's massive polo field by Alfred Sweeney and Stan Jolley.
The film was originally going to be filmed at Riverside Military Academy, in Georgia, but the producers changed their minds after a tour of the campus, by which they decided that it "didn't have enough walls." RMA officials countered by saying that allowing production would have caused too much disruption of the cadets' daily lives. After the movie was released, it seems that this held true.
The type of tank seen in the film was an M48 Patton tank. The medium tank was the third of 4 tanks (M46, M47, M48, and M60) to be named after General George S. Patton (1970) whom George C. Scott portrayed twice, in Patton (1970) and after this film in The Last Days of Patton (1986).
The film was originally developed at Columbia Pictures by Stanley R. Jaffe, but ran into a series of creative problems with the studio and it was one of many projects that went into "turnaround" under their banner. Jaffe was passionate about the project and then took it to 20th Century Fox, who bought the script and immediately green-lit the project.
The cast of Taps, The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club and St Elmo's Fire would form the Brat Pack. The most successful actor to emerge from this group would be Tom Cruise; he would have the highest box office grosses of any actor in Hollywood. The most critically acclaimed would be Sean Penn, who would win two Oscars, for Milk and Mystic River.. Most of the other Brat Packers would fade into obscurity shortly after this movie came out.
Whilst doing press in 1982 in London when promoting Taps (1981), actor Timothy Hutton told the interviewer that his next film would be a comedy, "The Hotel New Hampshire". Hutton, however, does not appear in The Hotel New Hampshire (1984).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The film was originally going to be filmed at Carson Long Military Academy in New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania. However, after learning that the school's gymnasium would be destroyed during filming, the president of the school rejected the offer, despite the fact that a new and better gymnasium would be built in its place, at the expense of the film's budget.
During the battle at the film's conclusion you see several National Guard and SWAT team members repeatedly pulling the charging handles on their AR-15/M-16s. The reason is the blanks being used for the production were of such low power that they would not properly cycle the gas system of the weapons.