The Lords Of Discipline (1983)

Jason plays a boy named McKinnon, who could rightly have been called "2nd row third cadet from the left" as he makes only a couple of fleeting appearances.

Pat Conroy went to some pains to insist that his novel The Lords of Discipline was not based solely on his experience at The Citadel, the military academy in Charleston, S.C., from which he graduated. The 1983 film version went perhaps further -- much of it was shot in England. The director, Franc Roddam, was English, and the film was his first after making a successful feature debut in 1979 with Quadrophenia, starring The Who. It failed to register at the box office, but it continues to be a staple on cable TV and home video.

103 min.
Director: Franc Roddam

Filmed at Wellington College, Berkshire, England, UK

The Lords of Discipline

A Film Review by James Kendrick

Director: Franc Roddam
Screenplay: Thomas Pope and Lloyd Fonvielle (based on the novel by Pat Conroy)
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)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1983
Country: USA

"The Lords of Discipline" was one of the last in a string of youth-oriented military movies that appeared in the early eighties, including "Taps" (1981) and "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1983). However, it has neither the idealism of the former, nor the romance of the latter.
The story is set at the fictional Carolina Military Institute in South Carolina, some time during the mid-sixties when America was in a period of profound change. Although at first, the movie seems to be about the school's difficulty in incorporating its first black 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 has determined to ensure that all those that "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. 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 just 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 investigation.)

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 your 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 a bit mean-spirited and sadistic. The movie was based on a novel by Pat Conroy, the same man who wrote "The Great Santini" (1979) and "The Prince of Tides" (1991). 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.

One of the major disappointments in the film is its coarse and ill-defined treatment of racial matters. It seems that every single character is racist, even those we're suppose to be siding with, 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 as well, but the movie often makes them quite difficult to like as people. The movie throws around a lot of racial slurs amongst the roommates and other caders, but little is ever made of it.

Of course, the story does take place in the South during the sixties, but does that mean that every white character living in that time and place was openly racist? At one point, 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!" 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?

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 some reason 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 some will remember as Slider in "Top Gun" -- who went virtually nowhere.