The Lords of Discipline [DVD]
Director : s Franc Roddam
Screenplay : Thomas Pope and Lloyd Fonvielle (based on the novel by Pat Conroy)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1983
Stars : David Keith (Will McLean), Robert Prosky (Bear), G.D. Spradlin (Gen. Durrell), Barbara Babcock (Abigail), Michael Biehn (Alexander), Rick Rossovich (Dante Pignetti), John Lavachielli (Mark), Mitchell Lichtenstein (Trado), Mark Breland (Pearce), Malcolm Danare (Poteete)
The Lords of Discipline was one of the last in a string of youth-oriented military movies that appeared in the early 1980s, including Taps (1981) and An Officer and a Gentleman (1983). However, it has neither the idealism of the former (even with its tacked-on seemingly happy ending), nor the romance of the latter.
The story is set at the fictional Carolina Military Institute in South Carolina, some time during the mid-1960s when America was in a period of profound social change. Although at first the film seems to be about the school’s difficulty in incorporating its first African-American cadet, it soon turns into a sort of quasi-mystery about one honest cadet’s battle against a secretive group-within-the-group. Known as “The Ten,” this group is determined to ensure that all those who don’t “fit in” according to their standards are run out of the school.
The main character is a senior cadet named Will McLean, effectively portrayed by David Keith, who looks like a less severe version of Patrick Swayze. Will is something of a misfit, and the only reason he is at the school is because it was his dying father’s wish. He has been taken under the wing of the school’s cadet commander, a salty old cigar-chomping colonel known as Bear (Robert Prosky). Bear asks Wills to keep an eye on the new black cadet, Pearce (Mark Breland), because Bear knows there will be trouble and Pearce will need an older cadet to stand up for him. Will isn’t excited about the idea, but because of the respect and friendship he shares with Bear, he agrees.
It doesn't take long for the pressure to mount on Pearce--he is systematically attacked with racial slurs and extreme physical exercise, but it’s really no worse than any of the freshman “knobs” are getting, especially on the fabled “Hell Night.” However, once “The Ten” get involved, everything changes. The movie establishes the danger of “The Ten” by first depicting their physical and mental torture of another freshman, this one a chubby slacker who ends up throwing himself off a building in desperation. This suicide is probably the most gratuitous scene in the film, not because it’s graphically violent, but because once it happens, the character is virtually forgotten. (Somehow, I have a hard time believing that if a military school lost a freshman to suicide in the first week, there wouldn’t be some kind of significant investigation and press coverage.)
Before the suicide, Will had never heard about “The Ten.” When he asks Bear about it, Bear is allusive. Was he, perhaps, a past member? And who are the current members? Infuriated that “The Ten” are able to break the school’s strict codes of conduct at their leisure and suspecting that the school itself is secretly backing them, Will sets out to unmask the group and put a stop to their reign of terror.
The framework of The Lords of Discipline is thus the typical one man and his righteousness versus the group and their evil doings. As directed by Franc Roddam, it’s a fairly effective thriller, although it sometimes feels too mean-spirited and sadistic. Roddam, a British director making his U.S. debut after the successful 1979 film version of The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia, gives the film a stylistic polish that makes it go down that much easier. Roddam was on the brink of becoming a major director at this point, and his follow-up film, 1985’s stylish Bride of Frankenstein-remake The Bride, and contribution to 1987’s Aria, which also featured such luminary auteurs as Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg, and Bruce Beresford, should have catapulted him to the front ranks of international cinema. Instead, he quietly slipped away, his last contributions to film being two made-for-TV movies in the late 1990s, Moby Dick (1998) and Cleopatra (1999).
The film was based on a novel by Pat Conroy, the same man who wrote the novels on which The Great Santini (1979) and The Prince of Tides (1991) were based. It contains Conroy’s typically melodramatic and intense treatment of characters and situations, but there is a strain of realism because Conroy attended The Citadel, which is the obvious inspiration for the fictional Carolina Military Institute. Pairing The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline, it isn’t hard to see that Conroy doesn’t have much good will toward the effects the military life.
One of the major disappointments in The Lords of Disciplineis its coarse and ill-defined treatment of racial matters. It seems that every single character is racist, even those with whom we’re suppose to be siding, including Bear, Will, and his three roommates, Dante Pignetti, a.k.a. “Pig” (Rick Rossovich), Mark (John Lavachielli), and Trado (Mitchell Lichtenstein). The roommates are ostensibly on Will’s side and therefore on the audience’s side, but the film often makes them quite difficult to like as people. The roommates and other cadets casually toss about virulent racial slurs, but little is ever made of it.
Of course, the story does take place in the South during the 1960s, so it is only to be expected that the young men would reflect the racism of the time and place in which they were raised. However, the screenplay by Thomas Pope and Lloyd Fonvielle fails to suggest that the characters ever improve their racial attitudes despite their experiences, which would have helped justify the film’s often overt sadism.
At one point late in the film, Will and his roommates are on the verge of getting run out of the school for their actions against “The Ten,” and in his defense Will blurts out, “I never did it for the nigger!” So, then, who did he do it for? Himself? It almost completely undermines his credibility as a character, and brings into question the film’s motives. There’s a small scene between Will and Pearce at the end of the film that tries to smooth everything over, but it feels forced and phony. Is Will truly proud that the school’s first black cadet might actually make it, or is he just proud of himself for winning against the system, one that he embraced only at the behest of others?
In a nutshell, The Lords of Discipline wants be titillating with its sadistic violence and hazing rituals (including Pearce having the number 10 carved on his back with a knife and a torture session involving electrodes and gasoline) and then throw down a firm ruling that it was all wrong. Those who dislike the military environment could easily point this movie out as a perfect example of what’s wrong with our military system. However, at the same time, those who support the military can also use the movie in their defense, citing the fact that, when the cadets play by the rules, everything works. It’s only when a small group takes matters in its own hands that the system gets out of control.
However, despite the alternating sadistic/righteous tone of The Lords of Discipline, there is some fun to be had: watching for now-famous actors in early roles. Look for Judge Reinhold (Beverly Hills Cop), Michael Biehn (The Terminator, The Abyss) and especially Bill Paxton (Apollo 13, Titanic), who for reasons that are surely embarrassing to him now chose to be listed in the credits as “Wild” Bill Paxton. Ironically enough, it the two young actors who give the best performances--David Keith, who also starred in An Officer and a Gentleman, and Rick Rossovich, who most will remember as Slider in Top Gun (1986)--whose careers never really took off.
|The Lords of Discipline DVD|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Video|
|Release Date||February 28, 2005|
|The anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Lords of Discipline looks good throughout. It seems just a little bit soft, but it most likely reflective of the film’s intended look. Colors are natural-looking throughout, with good fleshtones and relatively solid black levels.|
|The original monaural soundtrack is fine for its age and limits.|
|No supplements are included, not even a trailer.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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