Paramount // 1983 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // February 28th, 2006
"Will, I don't have anything against Pearce. It's just the way it is. It's just the way it's always been."
The Lords of Discipline was released at a time in the early '80s where the train of thought was that casting directors could throw a whole lot of young talent at the feet of a director, put the setting in a military academy, and let the chips fall where they may. It seemed to work for a film released a couple of years before this was released, resulting in a sleepy little film called Taps. Taps featured very young versions of Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, and Timothy Hutton. The Lords of Discipline featured lesser appealing (though subsequent cult favorite) stars such as David Keith (An Officer and a Gentleman), Michael Biehn (The Terminator), and then-Olympic boxer Mark Breland (Miami Vice). So is it best to wait for Blu-Ray on something like this?
Sometimes, movies can make strange bedfellows. Who would have thought that a movie about a fictitious 1964 South Carolina Military Academy could be partially shot in England, with a director with a possible German surname in Franc Roddam (The Bride)? Well, that's just what happened. Based on a novel from Pat Conroy, who previously wrote The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline follows Will (Keith), who returns to the Carolina Military Institute for his final year of schooling and reunites with his friends Tradd (Mitchell Lichtenstein, Flawless), Mark (John Lavachielli, The Rocketeer), and Pig (Rick Rossovich, Roxanne). They are the upperclassmen, who there are to enjoy their last year of Academy life, and they're just as surprised as everyone to see that the Academy has allowed the admittance of Pearce, the Academy's first black student, into the fold.
Naturally, this gets more than a few people interested in Pearce's success or failure. There's a group of other fourth-year students, including Alexander (Biehn) and Gilbreath (Bill Paxton, Aliens) that want to try and haze Pearce out the door, and the second in command of the corps, adorably nicknamed Colonel Bear (Robert Prosky, Hoffa) may not like Pearce, but recognizes that he deserves an equal chance like everyone else. They all report to the Commandant of the Academy, General Durrell (G.D. Spradlin, North Dallas Forty), whose motives may not be as transparent as some may think.
God help me, I've always held a soft spot in my heart for The Lords of Discipline. Maybe it's because of my proclivity to watch the Citadel/VMI-like settings of a long-existing military academy in the South. Maybe it's because of my proclivity to identify some of today's stars in yesterday's films, albeit in some supporting roles. Maybe it's part of a larger, more disturbing proclivity towards watching any films starring a then young and vital Keith, before the tsunami that was Patrick Swayze came through in 1984 with Red Dawn. This effectively obliterated the need for America's urge to see more than one charming leading man who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
However, upon watching this movie again for the first time in a long time, I really can't overlook its flaws any longer. It is impressive to watch some of the precision and scale that are employed in some of the scenes by the cadets. And as one who participated in similar ceremonies and processions, I can tell you they are very cool. But the scenes that show cadets in an open courtyard start to wear on the viewer after a while. Will's transformation from an uncaring dumb kid to someone with a developed set of principles does make for some entertainment, but these scenes are pretty conventional and aren't too memorable. I'd go so far as to say that they detract from the overall enjoyment of the film.
In terms of performance, Keith, who I always liked and thought was underrated as an actor, holds his own here, and his classmates are likable also. Aside from Rossovich, the other young faces you'll see are Biehn and Paxton, along with Judge Reinhold (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and a very young Matt Frewer for those '80s geeks who are reading along. As the General, Spradlin comes across as very nice and appealing, and Prosky's Cajun drawl is very convincing to boot. I can't speak to this adaptation's faithfulness to Conroy's novel (and I haven't watched The Great Santini in a long time), but it seems to me that Conroy was fairly adept at trying to get military figures, either institutionally or individually, to confront racially-soaked situations with a degree of awkwardness. Whether or not Conroy enjoys exposing military men and institutions to social issues for the purpose of seeing how they resolve them is unknown. What comes from his work is that he appears to love the military, and finds disappointment in how they resolve issues of race, and that's something I can heartily agree with.
Points for kitschiness would probably have been recognized for the inclusion of a trailer, or an EPK, old or new. Perhaps even a commentary, but it seemed like everyone moved on with their lives and did other things, so there's no ill will towards this opinion.
Up against Taps, I'd probably say go with Taps now, because the second half of the story in this film just doesn't hold up as much as it used to for me.
The filmmakers are found not guilty, but the screenwriters are found guilty, and their sentence is to go on the walk of shame.
Review content copyright © 2006 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R