THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE has the style and substance of a good beer commercial. Not the ditzy variety that conjures up visions of cheerful beer weekends and toasts between mellow and tanned "good friends." This is strictly a movie about earning your Bud--going through the kinds of trials and tribulations of manhood that can only be rewarded with a satisfying lager. By the film's end, our hero has earned, if not an academy award, certainly a six pack.
The setting is pure beer commercial. The Carolina Military Institute is Dixieland's picture-postcard answer to West Point. It is gruff-talking and hard-hitting, a sort of boot camp Shaeffer City. Everyone talks a lot about producing the sort of real men who will put flabby America back on track.
Hemingway once said that there are only five real themes in all of literature; The Lords of Discipline is slavishly based on one of the tried-and-true. Fans of the New Testament should recognize a lot of the action. There are good guys and bad guys. The bad guys sneer most of the time, and put razor blades in the sneakers of Pierce, the first Black cadet in the Institute's history. Will, the hero, talks a lot about saving the Black cadet from his tormentors because it's the "right" thing to do, turning the other cheek, and doing unto others in the classical Christian manner.
It doesn't take long to realize that we are going to spend this night at the movies watching noble Will convert a 1964 racist, Southern military academy into accepting its first Black cadet. We learn early on in the film that Will and his small band of roommate-disciples will have to battle a secret and unpleasant group of cadets called The Ten. It doesn't take long to guess that the good guys will win.
The Lords of Discipline might be put to best use if screened to non-Christians in faraway lands, since the plot holds few surprises for a Westerner. Are we supposed to be surprised when Will cribs from the Golden Rule and says he will not participate in torturing the new cadets, since he didn't like the practice when it was done to him? Or when the good Will recruits a hardy band of disciples, and one of them, Judas-like, betrays him several scenes later? Even the casting department of the film seems to have gotten into the Christian imagery act, choosing for the part of Will David Keith, who is magically resurrected on screen since his death at the end of his last film, An Officer and a Gentleman.
LIKE MANY ALLEGORIES, the movie develops plot at the expense of meaningful character development. Characters fall neatly into place as Good or Evil; symbols are constantly thrown at the allegory-watcher. Will and Pierce communicate clandestinely through messages left in--get it?--a book called The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. When Will asks a wise old officer if there really is a place called The Hole, to which the Ten are rumored to take the cadets they don't like, the officer cannily replies "Is Hell a real place?"
Perhaps for consistency, the cinematography manages to be every bit as heavy-handed as the script. Will's most lofty discussions about protecting Pierce inevitably occur with a hymn-singing cadet choir in the background. Another crucial discussion is framed by the outline of an enormous replica of the Institute's gold class ring. All that's missing are the haloes.
More dangerous than a little triteness of plot and characterization, however, is the film's essentially revisionist treatment of Southern history. While the writers have every reason, for the sake of the allegory, to want us to believe that one good white man single-handedly integrated the Institute, good allegory is in this case bad history. The Lords of Discipline tells of good white Southerners curing racism on their own, while Pierce, the Black, passively looks on.
Enough time has passed since the integration battles of the early 1960s for revisionist writers to begin trying to spread the impression that Southern whites cured their own problems, as this movie tacitly suggests. Some people still remember, though, that it was brave Blacks and a strong federal government that played a major role in the real integration battles.
By the movie's end. Will has done his job. Good has triumphed, and the white racists have learned a few lessons about loving their neighbor. In a closing scene, a crusty old officer hands Will his cadet ring and tells him he has really earned it, because he has finally learned what it is to be a man. It's hard not to think, though, that he should have instead handed the young man a good, cold beer.