Tank (1984; Dir.: Marvin J. Chomsky)
By Mike Dub
*NOTE: This is Mike’s contribution to the 1984-a-thon at Forgotten Filmcast. Over 100 bloggers are participating in this week long blog-a-thon, so please check out their site for links to more reviews of films from 1984. Read Daniel’s review of Against All Odds HERE.
The mid-1980s was a strange time for Hollywood’s military movies. Despite the success of New Hollywood features likeThe Deer Hunter and Coming Home at the end of the 1970s, the 1980s were couched in Reagan-era gumption, and produced more reassuring mainstream war films that sought to reinvigorate faith in American military prowess. Tapping into the most valuable target market, movies like Red Dawn turn to America’s teenagers to protect their country after the pacifist failures of their parents have left the U.S. vulnerable to a cold war invasion. Top Gun and Iron Eagle, while defining air combat as the coolest thing ever, also feature young men who surpass their fathers’ dogfighting skills in order to save the day. And, in more explicit terms, films like Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood Part II depict American soldiers returning to Vietnam to reclaim their military potency by saving POWs leftover from the war.
Somewhere amid those intense, glossy blockbusters sits the relatively modest curiosity of Tank. Produced in 1984 by Lorimar (the fine folks who brought you the lion’s share of ABC’s “TGIF” schedule in the ‘90s), Tank is a vapid, ridiculous action-adventure romp that revels in the exhibition of military might making right. A pointless film without any sense of perspective or value, it somehow still manages to capture the infantile glee for American military machinery that permeates the other war films of its time. Given the forthrightness of its unimaginative title, there is no confusion as to the real star of Tank.
Unfortunately, rather than simply showcase the eponymous vehicle in nihilistic exuberance (as would likely happen in an exploitation action film made today), Tank provides a contrived, brain-dead storyline to justify its existence. Army Sergeant-Major Zack Carey (James Garner), notorious throughout the Army as the only person in the country to own his own Sherman tank, moves his wife LaDonna (Shirley Jones) and son Billy (C. Thomas Howell) to a base in Georgia to finish out his service while his retirement papers are being processed. Much in the first half of this two-hour long movie plays like a domestic drama, with old man Carey (“Everything’s got to be a disco – I don’t want to go to a disco!”) doing his best to ease family tensions and adjust to his new surroundings. Before long, though, Carey runs afoul of the cartoonishly sadistic, corrupt local sheriff (G.D. Spradlin), which leads to Billy’s arrest and imprisonment on false charges. And that’s when he turns to the tank.
Carey uses the tank to bust Billy out of prison, along with the help of gold-hearted hooker Sarah (Jenilee Harrison – the short-tenured Cindy on Three’s Company), and the three of them hop in the tank and head for the state line (“We’re not running from the law,” Carey explains for the benefit of any impressionable kids in the audience. “We’re running to the law”). As they race for the safety of Tennessee, the news media get ahold of the story and the trio become outlaw heroes – there is even a parade waiting for them at the state line, complete with marching bands and cotton candy.
In a movie like Tank, it is difficult to know exactly when the story moves from stupid to preposterously stupid. Is it when Carey destroys the town jail with his tank? Or when, as punishment for a lifetime of severely violent abuses of authority, Carey forces a deputy to strip in public? Or is it the absence of any federal law enforcement presence on a case that involves a man breaking out of prison in a tank? Maybe it is Billy’s public apology to his dad, delivered during a CB radio interview, which concludes, “I don’t have to prove anything to him. I love him.” I’m not sure, but by the time we reach the climax of the film, during which the sheriff plans to massacre three innocent, unarmed people in front of a carnival of citizens at the state line, it doesn’t matter. The only pertinent question, beyond how much time is left in the movie, is how little can this film possibly think of its audience.
As idiotic and incoherent as it is, Tank does tap into the resurgence of American military pride in the post-Vietnam era. Early on in the film, we learn that Carey is the father of two sons, but one of them died under circumstances that are never made clear. While that plot point imbibes Carey with extra motivation for saving Billy (as though that were necessary), it also instills a hint of loss and regret into Carey. Fortunately, Carey is a true, stiff-upper-lipped soldier, and he’s got no time to dwell on the past. Tank makes it clear that military power is still in the hands of those who use it, and love it, best. Most importantly, it provides that lesson in a family-friendly package suitable for children – er, viewers – of all ages.