The quintessential young adult novel The Chocolate War paints a Catholic high school as a nihilistic battleground. The concept of “individual” and “society” is dramatized by having individual cruelties accepted by the herd. An idealistic young man, Renault, goes against that entire system, confronting the high school’s creepy secret society and the iron-willed teachers by refusing to take part in their annual chocolate sale. This only leads to some Crucifixion symbolism and an ending as bloody as being beaten up behind the school. Keith Gordon’s film adaptation is no less blunt in its visuals; handsome young men are isolated in controlled images set against bleak gray skies or monolithic blackboards.
The cool color palette, slightly hyper-real acting, and deadpan approach to evil are all indebted to Stanley Kubrick, but The Chocolate War is reminiscent of another kind of movie that one wishes could be jump-started again in today’s apathetic times: Angry Young Man films. Gordon is less of a surrealist than the late Lindsay Anderson, notwithstanding the handful of dream sequences that make vivid use of prime colors in the background, coffins appearing in the high school football fields, and characters reciting dialogue mismatched with the voices of other characters that allow us to see them in a new light. It’s more about tone: Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) has barely any dialogue, but this sensitive, soft-spoken young actor has a rebellious gleam in his eyes when asked whether he’s going to sell the chocolates. When he says, “No,” we’re witnessing a character rarely seen in film, a reserved provocateur who fights city hall through passive resistance.
Renault meets his match with an enemy who, like him, is a kind of rebel, and actually becomes the emotional center of the movie: Archie (Wally Ward), the mastermind of the secret society who has no illusions about human nature. Archie regards practical jokes and hazing of his fellow students as a way of recognizing life’s random cruelties and absurdities. There’s a kind of poetry in him as he pressures the freshmen into unscrewing every table and chair in a teacher’s classroom until they’re just about to fall apart. He, too, is a version of rebellious youth, and, like Renault, he pushes his agenda to the point where it is almost self-destructive. The chocolate war happens because Archie ordered Renault not to sell for 10 days, and when Renault continues his rebellion, the proverbial cracks in the system start to show. Bland-faced, asexual Wally Ward (who later changed his name to Wally Langham and joined The Larry Sanders Show) gives a charged, often funny performance, whose very awkwardness and lanky frame is used to press an advantage. He doesn’t move—he either slithers or dances, and from beat to beat it’s curious to see what direction he’s going to go.
Keith Gordon was a child actor himself, having appeared in Dressed to Kill and Christine. He’s in touch with the dark side of youth, and also the spontaneity and self-indulgent morbid happiness of being alone or oppressed. It defines one’s nature. The soundtrack doesn’t feature the sulking hilarity of The Smiths, but it feels like one of their songs, lusciously mixing jokes with existentialist despair. But the music comes close, and makes fantastic use of Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told,” often skipping the song’s heavy lyrics and using its music box introductory notes, which unsettle in their cold rhythmic beauty.
Gordon also makes a few crucial changes to the ending of the book, which may frustrate those readers who grew up having Robert Cormier’s nihilistic tome committed to memory. But in some ways, he actually improves the finale, which does indeed end in a horrible beating and a group acceptance that “that’s life,” but the tragedy is not as simple as a Jesus character getting strung up on the cross. In fact, Gordon describes the climactic beats as being a response to movies like The Karate Kid, where the hero is able to solve all his problems by beating up the bad guy. As a character gets his teeth smashed in, the sound drops out (a nod to Raging Bull, in one of Gordon’s ham-fisted but nonetheless effective shout-outs to Scorsese) and the viewer is left to question what defines heroism and satisfaction.
For a movie set in high school where there are no sex scenes or nudity, and barely any women, there’s a strong sexual charge. That unsettles, too, because The Chocolate War is about control, and who is holding that power. The disciplinarian teacher is played by John Glover, an actor who fits into the world of the movie perfectly because he continually shifts gears within each scene, from high comedy to teeth-gnawing nervousness to piercing savagery. He’s never presented as a pedophile, though he’s tenderly stroking his students’ hair and joking around with them as if he were a kid himself before becoming an Old Testament father lecturing them on mob rule.
If this movie is about sex, it’s certainly of the sadomasochistic variety, where the rebel gets off on his own act of self-destruction and the powers that be delight in watching him squirm. The Chocolate War is blatant in terms of what it’s trying to say, and the filmmaking techniques announce themselves aggressively, yet the movie insinuates itself in the viewer. It may remind you of high school, and some of the things you tried to forget.