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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Chocolate War (Dir. Keith Gordon)

This is something I’ll be doing fairly regularly on the blog, reviewing some older films.  Netflix Instant has been a savior for me, enabling me to fill in some of the gaps that all of us film lovers have.  And as I make my way through my very long queue, I will share with you my thoughts on the films I’m watching.  Some of them will be classics, some of them will be disasters, but most of them will fall somewhere in the middle.  And I’ll try to do my best to give you a sense of whether or not a particular film is worth your time.

Keith Gordon’s The Chocolate War is definitely worth your time.

I happen to be a big Keith Gordon fan.  If you don’t know that name, then you must seek out his brilliant WWII film A Midnight Clear, which is one of the most underrated and devastating war films ever made that nobody ever talks about.  Gordon was a teen actor in the 80s (you might remember him as Rodney Dangerfield’s son in the classic Back to School), but has become a much more accomplished filmmaker than he was an actor.  His first film, The Chocolate War, had been unseen by me for no good reason but boy am I glad I watched it today.

We’re immediately aware that the film was made in 1988 when Yaz’s “In My Room” plays over the credits and while the log-line might make the film seem like a typical prep-school hazing film at a corrupt institution, the look of the film is instantly different from the usual fare.  Shot mostly in dark rooms or against perpetually gray skies, the camera is fluid in a way that borders on clumsy.  Except, there is an artfulness to the clumsiness – something that Gordon utilizes well in A Midnight Clear and later in Mother Night.

I’m hesitant to give away too much of the plot because 1) it’s more complex than I can do justice to and 2) it’s so simple that writing about it could give it away.  If that seems contradictory, then good, because that’s what the character of Archie (Wallace Langham), the film’s villain, is.  He creates plans that are so complex just for the purpose of humiliating someone else and to gain power for him and his secret society, The Vigils.  When Brother Leon (a superb John Glover) asks for Archie’s help in selling boxes of chocolate so that the school can make money – and so that Brother Leon can become headmaster – Archie sees a wonderful opportunity for The Vigils to get away with whatever they want.

The fly in the ointment is young Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, from Weird Science).  When The Vigils tells him to say, “no” to the option of selling chocolate (something that no other student would dare to do), Jerry goes them one further: he continues to say no even after The Vigils tells him to give it up.  Jerry dreams of being more of a rebel than he is – gazing languidly at some of the leather-jacket wearing oddballs at the bus stop – and winds up becoming something of a symbol for the kids at the school.  The school itself is set up to be something of a fascistic machine that Brother Leon and Archie are a part of and Jerry tries to defy.  This winds up angering the guys in charge, as they are scared that young Jerry will disrupt the whole system.

There are a lot of ways to look at the film metaphorically.  One could even point out allusions to Nazi Germany.  But the truth of the matter is that you can bring whatever you want to do it.  The film is deceptively complicated, though, in terms of the politics involved.  And every time you think you might have a handle on where the film might go, it goes somewhere else.  Jerry himself is something of a Gandhi-like figure for the majority of the film, using passive-resistant to incite his classmates to think about something as seemingly innocuous as selling chocolate.

The film I was most reminded of while watching The Chocolate War was Lindsay Anderson’s If.. except with a bit less of a reliance on surrealism.  Although, it must be said, Gordon does go to some surreal places and dream sequences from time to time (coffins in the football field).

The ending is fascinating and surprisingly dark.  In the end, it seems, we are all part of the system no matter how hard we try to rebel.  I urge you all the give this film a watch and then move on to A Midnight Clear.  If you do that, you’ll have a great day of movie-viewing, courtesy of the unheralded Keith Gordon.

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10 Responses to “The Chocolate War (Dir. Keith Gordon)”

  1. John says:

    Yes! I was an extra in this movie when I was 14, so it’s always had a place in my heart. Interviewed Keith Gordon for our Sammamish HS newspaper in Bellevue WA. Some fun facts:

    – Most of the extras were starstruck by Adam Baldwin, who’d just been Animalmother in Full Metal Jacket a few months before. He was very nice and gracious to everyone.

    – Keith told us the director he learned most from was John Carpenter (who’d directed him in Christine).

    – Ilan Mitchell-Smith asked for a stunt double for his getting tackled in the football scene, but when others chuckled at the notion, he bagged it and took the hits. He was cool too. He’d walk up to extras and start conversations.

    – A good percentage of students at the final boxing ring scene at this “all boys” school were girls dressed as boys.

    – They picked Sammamish HS’s football field because it was in the worst shape in the area. After the movie was made, they had their excuse to throw some money at the football field. The interior locker-room shots were at a different school.

    – This was the first decent role for Doug Hutchison, who finally broke out a decade later in The Green Mile.

  2. cam4 says:

    The majority of people can easily do amazing things if they have got the self-belief or take the challenges.

  3. hcat says:

    I liked Midnight Clear even though I thought it was a little too earnest. Mother Night was probably the best Vonnegut adaption, but that is not a very high bar to clear and it is one of his more easily filmed novels. The Connely movie he did whose name escapes me and I am too lazy to look up left me underwhelmed. So while Gordon doesn’t excite me your enthusiasm for this film does, and any chance to see John Glover as an epitome of evil is always worth a sit. The man elevated Gremlins 2 from a cheap cash in to high satire.

  4. have been following your site around three days. really like your posts. by the way i’m conducting a study about this topic. do you know any great websites or perhaps forums where I can find out more? thanks in advance.

  5. gentry says:

    I am a huge fan of Gordon’s, and particularly the two films you most mention. They’ve stuck with me for years now. The Chocolate War is based (very closely) on a Robert Cormier book by the same name, which is almost required reading in grade school. The author of Midnight Clear is somewhat of an enigma. He uses pseudonyms and I think lives in France. Very nice review

  6. gentry says:

    Ahh, he went by William Wharton, and wrote several successful novels. He died in 2008:

    seems like an awfully interesting guy.

  7. I don’t normally comment on blogs.. But nice post! I just bookmarked your site.

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  9. Juliana says:

    where can i watch this movie

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon