A Look Back: The Chocolate War

Upon viewing the opening scenes of “The Chocolate War,” the viewer might reasonably wonder why the shooting crew appears to be playing Hot Potato with the camera. But thanks in part to two Yaz songs in a row, it becomes clear that the shaky cam is supposed to be symbolic of the protagonist’s, a Catholic school teen named Jerry (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) tumultuous worldview. His mother has recently died, and after his first football practice (which does not go well), he goes home and tries to get his father to talk about something deeper than the casserole in the oven but fails. Also, unbeknownst to him, two members of the school’s secret society, the Vigils, played by Wally Ward (the leader) and Doug Hutchinson (the toadying second-in-command) have been observing him and decided that what he really needs is some “therapy.” (And football has no part in it. If you’re in the mood to see a plucky, puny kid triumph in that sport, watch “Rudy.”)

Meanwhile Brother Leon (John Glover) has been put in charge of the annual chocolate bar sale and is attempting to whip up the annual school spirit so that all the candy will get sold, and all the staff will be happy. We see early on that John is very into mind games – witnessed by a scene in his classroom where he falsely accuses one kid of cheating. (I didn’t attend Catholic school, but I remember a few teachers of mine trying the same kind of thing – who knows why – maybe they just got into teaching because they had a sadistic streak, and kids are easy targets.) Anyway, Wally’s idea of therapy is to force Ilan to refuse to sell chocolates, which he must do publicly and thus suffer some ostracism. Surprisingly (spoiler!) Ilan’s rebellion winds up influencing a few other students, and this does not sit well with John. He tries to get Wally to rally the students and make selling chocolates “cool,” but that darn Ilan keeps on refusing, even after his assigned period is up, and he’s now supposed to go back to being a sheep. Wally keeps trying to get Ilan to obey, but now that he’s gotten a taste of rebellion, he’s not about to let it go.

Watching the movie, you might well wonder if Wally will wind up teaching impressionable students when he’s an adult, or if he has bigger ambitions like maybe running for office one day. In eighties’ film tradition, the actor is blond, poker faced and looks way too old to be in high school. His character’s motto is: Life is shit. We never see his family, but we do get to see him stick a pin into a dead butterfly, so it’s clear that he’s the real villain in the story, and John is the Diet Coke of evil in comparison. When assigning tasks to his assigned victims, Wally always chooses a marble from a box filled with white with only one black, and if he picks the black, he must do the task instead – but so far, even though his fellow Vigils are getting fed up with his leadership, he never picks the black one. You can probably tell where this is going.

The movie, which is based on the eponymous book by young adult author Robert Cormier, had its ending changed from the novel’s. In the movie, Ilan, who gets endlessly (and somewhat creatively) hassled by the various Vigils is given an opportunity to box one of them (a kid who, among other things, keeps insinuating that he’s gay). So the event is sanctioned and held on school property, and the entire student body gets to put suggestions for boxing moves, and they also get to pick who does which move. The twist involves someone rigging the marble box, and the real bad guy getting the crap beaten out of him.  And the status quo is upended, but then it is depressingly restored.  Still the ending is definitely more upbeat than the book.  Life may be shit, but in Hollywood, the underdog deserves at least a fleeting moment of triumph.

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