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CHOCOLATE WAR, THE(director/writer: Keith Gordon; screenwriter: from a novel by Robert Cormier; cinematographer: editor: Jeff Wishengrad; cast: Brother Leon (John Glover), Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), Archie (Wally Ward), Goober (Corey Gunnestad), Obie (Doug Hutchison), Carter (Adam Baldwin), Frank Bolo (Landon Wine); Runtime: 103; Management Co. Entertainment Group; 1988)
“The acting is superb.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Cormier’s novel is about Trinity, a boys’ preparatory school for low-to-middle-class Catholics. In the film version the hero succumbs to all the violence around him and gets his revenge, as by the film’s end he happily wins a fist fight from his nemesis.

This directorial debut by the former actor Keith Gordon (he was a psycho in John Carpenter’s Christine), is really a tale about fascism. It is viewed from two sides of school life, one is from the side of the malevolent new head of the school, Brother Leon (John Glover), who is a madman. Brother Leon wraps his success in the school around how he can get the students to sell more boxes of chocolate in its annual sale for charity than the other head master did in his tenure. This he thinks will surely impress the school’s trustees. The other story is about the Vigils, a secret student organization meeting in the school basement. They try to control the student body by making them follow given assignments. The assignments might be in the nature of a prank that results in the unscrewing of the seats in a classroom or they might be more politically motivated assignments, like making students sell chocolates for the school so that their organization can attain more power within the school. Their snake-like leader is a clever bully, Archie (Ward), whose sense of control is challenged by a shy entering freshman, Jerry Renault (Smith), who refuses to sell the chocolates even after his 10-day assignment by the Vigils to not sell the chocolates is over. They view his rebellious action as a threat to their power and do everything they can to make his life miserable, including a cowardly physical attack upon him.

Everything that could be wrong about this school is wrong with it. The classroom teachers–the brothers–all have crosses dangling from their robes as if to remind the viewer that religion was something no one in this school believed in anymore, it was just for show. It is so perverse a place, that there seems to be no way to function in it without selling your soul. The non-conformist act by Jerry leaves a sour taste in his mouth, as the Vigils link themselves to the new head by making an oral agreement with him that benefits both parties. They act as Gestapo storm troopers to make sure that there will be no more dissension on campus.

The acting is superb. The story is gloomy and perceptive. The problem I had with the film lies in the sense that the only two decent students in the film, Renault and his friend Goober (Corey), have no recourse but to conform. There seems to be no real voice of reason. The heroes are too dull and without any real conviction to fight the fascists they are up against. All the other peripheral Vigil characters are weak-minded and willing to do anything to advance their own cause in the world. Carter (Adam) is a physical bully and a willing strong-arm for the group dictator. Frank Bolo (Landon) is a rotten and stupid thug, who can’t even look good in his school blazer like the other student fascists he wants to impress. Archie as student dictator is a despicable worm, who already has the misguided demeanor of an elderly tyrant. Obie (Doug) is the creepy guy who is a behind the scenes player, currying favor with anyone in power. All in all a pretty disgusting lot, which makes this film a tough watch. Its lesson seems to be that it is better to conform than to rebel. The film itself lacked any sustaining energy, it failed to show that it really cared to get at the enemy it was fighting. It looked like it was too much in love with the evil elite being depicted and invested too much in their presence to properly distance themselves from them and tell the story of the resistance fighter, like it needed to be told.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”