On the outskirts of the town I grew up in there was a large property that had once belonged to a World War I era colonel. The grounds have since been turned into a military museum. As a kid, one of the best things about visiting there was getting to see the collection of tanks, which we were allowed to climb all over to our hearts content. I admit I often imagined myself taking a little target practice with one of those bad boys. So I guess there is some degree of childhood fantasy fulfilled when watching the 1984 film Tank.
The film introduces us to Zach Carey (James Garner) a Sergeant Major in the army who has just arrived at his newest post, which he also intends to make his last. His wife LaDonna (Shirley Jones) and teenage son Billy (C. Thomas Howell) are with him. Oh, how could I forget… Zach also happens to be the owner of a Sherman tank which he restored with the help of Billy and his older son, a fellow soldier who died in the line of duty.
The family settles in quickly and things seem to be going well. Zach is connecting with old military buddies, LaDonna is hosting get-togethers with the other military wives, and Billy is moving up on the high school basketball team. However, trouble strikes one night when Zach is at a local bar which also happens to be a hangout for young prostitutes who cater to the needs of many of the local military men. Zach is simply enjoying a chat with a young woman named Sarah (Jenilee Harrison), who he doesn’t seem to realize is a hooker. He finds out soon enough, though, when a local deputy (James Cromwell) starts hurling insults at her and slapping her around. Zach is quick to defend the young woman and a fight ensues, leaving the deputy with the bruises to prove it.
The next day, Sheriff Buelton (G.D. Spradling) notices his deputy’s bruises and questions why the man responsible was not arrested. He sets out to arrest Zach, but the military police have no intention of turning him over to the Sheriff. Buelton retaliates by planting marijuana in Billy’s gym locker at school. He then arrests the boy on trumped up drug charges.
Zach tries to make a deal with the corrupt sheriff, but is double crossed. The good ole boy justice moves swiftly, resulting in Billy being sentenced to two years on a work farm. This leads to Zach taking matters into his own hands. He hops on his tank and busts Billy out, destroying a good portion of the town in the process. Now, with Sarah in tow, they make a slow speed run for the state line with the Sheriff and his men in pursuit.
Tank is a film I had been well aware of since its release in 1984, but had never gotten around to seeing. I had always assumed it was a comedy. Though it has a fair share of light-hearted moments, it’s actually pretty serious. This is largely expressed through Spradlin’s sadistic Sheriff Buelton. In one scene he takes great glee in making Sarah lift up her nightgown so he can thrash her with his belt. In another, he cheerfully tells Zach about how someone is likely to fall in love with Billy while he’s behind bars. He’s heartless, racist, sexist, vicious, vindictive, cruel and probably about a dozen other terrible things. Spradlin does a fantastic job creating a character that you just want to reach through the screen and strangle.
The other side of the equation is Garner, who is perfectly cast as the honorable career soldier. He’s a man who tries to work things out peacefully, but in the end is pushed too far. Even when he takes things to the extreme, however, he does so in a very matter-of-fact, straightforward way. He may be demolishing the local police station but he doesn’t fly off the handle. This is just the way it is when you get on the bad side of a man who owns his own tank.
The film is thoroughly entertaining…part First Blood, part Smokey and the Bandit. The final showdown between the tank and the Sheriff’s forces at the state line is, perhaps, a little bit on the silly side. However, by that point I didn’t care. I was in too much of a “rah rah” mood for it to matter.
When you get right down to it, Tank is a simple good vs. evil story. In this particular case, the evil is very evil. As for the good, they’ve got a Sherman tank and are ready to use it! What could be better than that!?