TANK (1984): We’re Not Gonna Take It

“A tank a day keeps the law away.”

This post is a very late contribution to the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by The Black Maria’s very own Jill Blake, and by Michael Nazarewycz of Scribe Hard On Film, which today spotlighted Mrs. Partridge herself: Shirley Jones. 

Tank (1984) is a film in which James Garner gets his Hulk on, Shirley Jones gets her NYPD Blue on, and John Cromwell gets…well…naked. Keep reading if you’re not already terrified–which you certainly have reason to be.

I’m sure that Dan Gordon, the screenwriter of Tank, intended a great many number of lessons when he sat down to write this drama (?) comedy (?) action film (?). The fight against moral corruption. A triumph of will. Power to the people. Stick it to the Man. But I think there’s really only one true lesson to be learned from TANK: Don’t piss off James Garner.

Like, at all. You do NOT want to see him when he’s angry. (And like the Hulk, both men’s superpowers involve the color green …)

Let’s be honest. When we’re watching socially conscious films like Cool Hand Luke, or In The Heat of The Night, who doesn’t want to, shall we say, roll out justice, by LITERALLY crushing those jerks with a WWII Sherman Tank! Well, that’s precisely what Tank is. (You can’t accuse them of false advertising, that’s for sure.) In fact, if you got Cool Hand Luke, In The Heat of The Night, and had them party with Dog Day Afternoon and Not Without My Daughter, and got ‘em to all do lines of coke at the back of a 1984 discotheque—the result would be this film.

James Garner is a battalion sergeant major who’s been in the service thirty some years and loves—I mean LOVES—his Sherman tank. He also has an offer to be the next Sergeant Major of the army, meaning Pentagon service, but this is his final tour of duty: all he wants is to retire from his military career and spend time with his wife and son on a house boat.

Shirley Jones is his wife, but unlike Mrs. Partridge, she’s kinda foul-mouthed and super sassy and, by her own admonition, very good in bed. They’re both looking forward to closing the deal on the houseboat so they can move with their teenage son, 80s Tiger Beat-prince C. Thomas Howell, to get away for good. (Howell’s older brother has recently died, though we’re never quite sure how, but it’s a convenient development for some third act father-son/man-to-man/tete-a-tetes.)


“Don’t be cute with me. I’m in a bad mood.”

Turns out there’s trouble in River City: With a capital T that rhymes with C and that stands for Cromwell. John Cromwell, the Deputy Sheriff. Garner gets tipsy one night at a bar, makes friends with a pretty young prostitute, who apparently does tricks for the Deputy, and an OK Corral showdown occurs. The ever-hunky Garner beats Cromwell to a pulp quite easily, not realizing that he’s just crossed the wrong man in the wrong town. Crowmell’s boss, the Sheriff, is a mix between the sadistic Strother Martin and cartoon Yosemite Sam, and he intends to make an example of Garner. Following the punch up at a bar, Cromwell and the Sheriff hit at Gardner by targeting his son: they plant a stash of pot in C. Thomas Howell’s locker room, falsely accuse him of resisting arrest, and throw him into a juvenile correctional facility.  And in this town, the corrupt police rule with an iron fist.

So what does James Garner do? What any self-respecting husband and father would do. He powers up his trusty WWII Sherman tank and bulldozes through town to teach those sons of bitches a lesson. This is ‘Murica, after all, and in the words of Twisted Sister, we ain’t gonna take it. He’s on a mission to rescue his son from his wrongful imprisonment, is joined by the prostitute who is quite happy to see her loser pimp (Cromwell) taught a lesson in public by the uber-manly Garner (Cromwell gets tied naked to a telephone pole. I’ll spare you the photos), and as his impossible mission to cross the state line—and thereby into legal safety—gains national attention. The sheriff and his gang of Keystone Kop-ish characters engage in a manhunt for them, vowing to stop them before they reach the Georgia border.

Not if Shirley Jones has anything to say about this. She strongarms the state Governor into publicly siding with the cause of her husband and son. Shirley Jones is, of course, a perfect mother-type, but not exactly a Mrs. Cleaver: she doesn’t seem to have a problem with her husband STEAM ROLLING through an entire state—including demolishing the jail and blowing up patrol cars—since, obviously, justice is on their side. True, it is.

But …

THIS? Really??


"You are an ASSHOLE, Governor."
“You are an ASSHOLE, Governor.”

The Sheriff is further frustrated by the fact that the army refuses to help him take the “lunatic” down. The dialogue in this film is Grade A Classic Camp, particularly an exchange between the irate Sheriff and the army Battallion Seargeant—Garner’s good friend. The Seargeant quotes the “Posse Comitatus Act” as the reason he is unable to grant the Sheriff’s request for federal involvement in taking down Garner.

He blinks stupidly at the Latin phrase before saying, “Did you just call me a Pussy Communist?”

Shirley Jones too has most of the great moments. Some of them I did not need to hear (her cajoling Garner to bed by telling him ‘let me show you just how young you still are’) Some of them I couldn’t believe I heard (like calling the Governor an asshole. Which he was, so, you know, that’s fair.)

the tank

And so the final showdown is a 1984 version of Little Big Horn at Gettysburg as Garner’s tank barrels forward across an open air clearing, allowing for the Sheriff’s posse to open fire (oh no, not just rifles—an UZI factors in here) to blow up this now nationally famous champion of the people before he finds sanctuary across the state line.

The battle is won by a tug of war. Oh, morally, sure. But actually: a literal tug of war. The pro-Garner multicultural masses (which include some heroic efforts by the Hells Angels, by the way) join forces when Garner’s tank gets stuck in a muddy sinkhole near the end of the clearing. A rope is fashioned and several dozens of people join hands to pull the tank out of the murk. But not before the Sheriff’s posse join forces to overpower the other side.

It is without doubt one of the most ridiculous moments you’ll ever experience. And therefore, thoroughly entertaining.

The right of the people win–Garner, Jones, Howell, and the prostitute, are media darlings, and, I’m assuming, they all live happily ever after.

Tank is an 90 minute exercise in WTF. An unfathomable plot, hokey dialogue, and campy performances combine to make it, I’ve gotta admit: inexplicably enjoyable. This is your three o’clock in the morning on a Saturday movie. The movie that you wake up the next morning not sure if it was a dream or if it was real. But oh, Tank is the real deal.

It’s also in on its own joke. Which, for all its boggling campy production value, makes it genuinely likable.

Give Tank a watch, if you know what’s good for you.

Because you really don’t want to make James Garner angry…

1 Comment

  1. Spot on description. I watched this for the first time just a few weeks ago and absolutely had WTF moment. It really is ridiculous, but somehow I kept watching :0

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