Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Lords of Discipline

(R, Paramount Pictures, 102 mins., theatrical release date: Feb. 18, 1983)

Donald "Pat" Conroy passed away last year, leaving behind a beloved literary back catalog which was reliable for prestige filmic adaptations (The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides). This year, Bill Paxton died far younger, his colorful legacy as a character actor including such nostalgic totem poles like Aliens, Weird Science, Twister, and my personal favorite, Near Dark. And here I am to talk about the movie version of Conroy's 1980 novel The Lords of Discipline, with Paxton in a supporting role. I would like to take a moment before this review to honor both men.

Pat Conroy's second fictional tome and subsequent film version continues a theme of The Great Santini, that of achieving manhood in the face of brutal tradition and Deep South dysfunction. Whereas Santini was inspired by the familial ties that bind, specifically the strained relationship between Conroy and his father Donald Sr. (a decorated veteran of Korean War whose Marine pride morphed into a bleak form of paternal torture), The Lords of Discipline focused on Conroy's schooling at Charleston, SC's military academy The Citadel.

For this particular translation, screenwriters Thomas Pope and Lloyd Fonvielle seize upon the senior year shame Conroy had based upon the knowledge of corrupt power plays involving senior cadets which began in 1907 at a renowned military college. The Lords of Discipline takes celluloid form as a conspiracy-based thriller about a form of intramural horror which takes idealistic would-be soldiers and intimidates them into lifelong trauma at best.

Ben Meecham of Santini sought to overcome a form of generational cruelty, whereas Will McLean tries to persevere faced with institutionalized savagery. David Keith aces the lead role of Will following supporting work in The Great Santini, in which he played the racist tormentor Red, as well as An Officer and a Gentleman. The scene is 1964 at the Carolina Military Institute, where English major Will arrives for his graduate year in good-humored style, reuniting with his three roommates and close friends. One of them, Tradd (Mitchell Lichtenstein), is an effete yet cultured confidante who trusts Will enough to give him a spare key to his family mansion and an anytime welcome. Another is Pignetti (Rick Rossovich), a bull-necked bruiser who's a real puppy dog on the inside, making a grand entrance by roughing up one freshman "knob" for the sin of talking vulgar about his sweetheart Teresa, and right to her framed photograph.

Will also meets again with his salty but dignified mentor Col. "Bear" Berrineau (Robert Prosky), who is still molding the military brat by assigning Will a debt-repaying operation he is hesitant to accept. Turns out a stringy African-American boy named Pearce (Mark Breland) has damned the color lines and arrived at the Institute, which is bound to shake up the hornet's nest among the student body. Bear entrusts Will, who refuses to fall in line with the rigorous abuse of his peers even on Hell Night, to ensure Pearce is given a fair shake as a knob, running interference if necessary.

What Will soon discovers is that a Klan-like cabal of roughnecks known mythically as "The Ten" are plotting to drive Pearce out of the academy by any means necessary, be it bodily harm or even murder. And if he's to take a stand, chances are it means questioning his loyalty to the brass ring on both his finger as well as that which is in command of the school. 

The Lords of Discipline bears the liberal-minded hallmarks of an Alan Parker melodrama (Mississippi Burning, Midnight Express), but the director here is fellow Brit Franc Roddam, who made a simplistically affecting coming-of-age tale out of Pete Townshend's rock opera Quadrophenia. Working with both an American cast and subject matter (although filmed in Brighton because no U.S. school was flattered by the location scouting), there is an outsider's sense of sensationalism which stands in stark comparison to the rawer slice-of-life elements in Quadrophenia.

For the first half, Roddam actually excels in depicting the testosterone-mad atmosphere of dominance which is a military academy. The film opens with one solitary freshman (Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer) running toward the quad and getting berated by three of the most unctuous student taskmasters in the senior class, among them future space grunts Michael Biehn as Alexander and "Wild" Bill Paxton himself (that's seriously how he's credited here) as Gilbreath. These same junior martinets later force Pearce to do pull-ups whilst training a sword at his scrotum (all bids are closed at that point as to who at least half of The Ten really are). In between these are some well-acted and colorfully-written camaraderie between Will and his more even-minded if prejudiced roomies, the background a symphony of drill sergeants operating the ringers.

The story that develops inevitably requires Will to confront not just The Ten, but also the complacency and callousness of his friends and teachers. On the one end is Col. Berrineau, who owns up to his virulent racism but in no uncertain terms keeps faithful to the code of honor in which all men are equal in the need for defending America. Less tolerant than even the Bear is boyish Tradd, who plays Mozart in his study to the consternation of his manlier-than-thou father, but who speaks in the haughty, bigoted tones of a plantation owner. Even after The Ten drives a white student, a frail butterball named Poteete (Malcolm Danare), to suicide, Tradd shrugs off the tragedy with the indifference of a Southern Belle out to lunch.

Poteete's shell-shocked demise is even glossed over by the headmaster, Gen. Durrell (G.D. Spradlin), as an accident during "parachute descent" exercises. The senior class and their commandants turn up with candles outside the door of Poteete's parents and ease their grief with a rousing choral rendition of "Dixieland," all the while the victimized Pearce lays in his bunker without as much hope for peace as his dead roommate.

Will convinces Tradd, Pignetti and paisan pal Santoro (John Lavachielli) to help him get to the bottom of things, which places a strain on their close-quarters friendship. But once Will witnesses the awful truth for himself about "the hole" (The Ten's secretive house of pain), the insularity of the environment suddenly chokes the narrative and compounds logistical flaws in a hamfisted attempt to sanctify a battle between white knights and black masks. Even though the shameful developments continue in Will's pursuit of justice, they don't really bear the gravitational weight of one student's loss and another's silent suffering, never mind acknowledging any kind of wider world outside the barracks.

Chalk it up to simple-minded screenwriting misconduct on the part of Pope & Fonvielle, because Franc Roddam at least tries to make the proceedings as urgent and unsettling as he possibly can. He knows how to capture eerie dichotomies, like when Pearce confides to Will within shouting distance of their enemies in the church, lifting his shirt to reveal the numbers "1-0" carved into his back. The performances he coaxes from David Keith, Rick Rossovich and Robert Prosky in particular are grounded above and beyond the call of duty, alleviating the hysteria with some badly-needed humor (a sidelined Judge Reinhold also makes a likeable wiseass as Macabbee). Mark Breland and Malcolm Danare suffer well as the whipping boys, whilst Mitchell Lichtenstein, Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton do the Gestapo routine with gusto, although Lichtenstein's Tradd is betrayed by the script to be a whiny turncoat instead of a genuinely conflicted insider.

In terms of cast and filmmaker, The Lords of Discipline never accrues enough demerits to merit the dreaded Walk of Shame one of Will's friends has to endure. Still, this amiably disturbing if unbalanced period piece never fires off all of its 21 guns.

Finally, seven trivial thoughts in the wake of my first screening:

1) Judge Reinhold, fresh off Fast Times at Ridgemont High, makes for one all-American booger ("I always knew you were corn-holing your roommate, you little pissant!"). Funny seeing him and Paxton together knowing they both were called into active duty in the wartime video for Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night." I still recommend Vice Versa, screw whatever the man who made Yoga Hosers has to say.

2) Biehn, Paxton and Rossovich would regularly work together again in various groupings. The trio would reunite in The Terminator and Navy Seals, whereas the six-time team of Paxton & Rossovich tie into my Diane Franklin retrospective by virtue of Deadly Lessons, the TV movie released in the same year as The Lords of Discipline.

3) Malcolm Danare is kind of an unsung hero among chubby 1980s personalities, even more so than Joe Rubbo. Danare played a literal heavy in Christine from '83 (with Robert Prosky, who also later starred in Gremlins 2), and even had a minor role in the blockbuster Flashdance, but gave his best performance as the know-it-all Caesar in the hidden gem Heaven Help Us a couple years later. He must have gotten along well with David Keith, who remembered Danare for his directorial debut with The Curse (1987), where Danare played Wil Wheaton's wicked stepbrother.

4) According to his IMDb bio, Rossovich is "considered one of the nicest people to work with, and a devoted family man." I'll miss him eventually as much as I do Paxton, if that's any indication, as well as for his role opposite Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah in Roxanne. Watch out for him in Top Gun and Streets of Fire.

5) Mitchell "Tradd" Lichtenstein went on to play a closeted Vietnam soldier in Robert Altman's filmed play of Streamers, co-starring Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier. In 2007, he made like a lot of frustrated actors and crossed over into writing/directing with the vagina dentata goof Teeth. He also directed Parker Posey, Demi Moore and Ellen Barkin in 2009's less-acclaimed Happy Tears. Still more imaginative and provocative than Steven Antin.

6) Mark Breland is of course known as the former World Welterweight Champion with five Golden Gloves and a great pro boxer record of 35-3-1, including 25 knock-out victories. He rolls with the punches as Pearce, but I think he could take out his white co-stars flawlessly, even Gilbreath and Pignetti.

7) Franc Roddam's mainstream career took a sharp nosedive in 1985 after he reteamed with Gordon "Ace Face" Sumner and one of the writers of the Lords of Discipline script for The Bride (Sting, Stangk, Stunk!). In the aftermath of the overlooked War Party and the pretty vacant K2 (with Michael Biehn in the lead), he's now content with a long career as writer for the Masterchef TV franchise. At least I'll always have the Criterion release of Quadrophenia to remind me of his (and Sting's) former glory.

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