Southern Culture Thursday
The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy (Book & Film Adaptation)
No, The Lords of Discipline is not the lastest 50 Shades of Grey epic.
If you grew up in the South in the 1980s or 1990s you probably remember it as a book that many kids read in middle school, along with The Outsiders, or you may have seen the 1983 film adaptation.
It is a notable book from one of the most famous Southern authors – Pat Conroy. It addresses hazing at a Southern military school and reflects several facets of Southern society including class divisions, masculinity, militarism, conformism, racism, and the social milieu of old coastal towns like Charleston (and indirectly Mobile)..
Author: Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy has had more film adapations made of his books than most Southern authors. Most of his books are semi-autobiographical (note BOLDED titles have film adaptations) based on: his youth as a military brat with a domineering Air Force father (The Great Santini; The Death of Santini), his time at The Citadel military academy in Charleston (The Lords of Discipline; My Losing Season); his time teaching at a Gullah schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, S.C. (The Water Is Wide – made into the film Conrack as well as a Hallmark T.V. movie); and general fiction with South Carolinians as principal characters dealing with family issues (The Prince of Tides; Beach Music; South of Broad).
The Lords of Discipline (1980)
The book follows the protagonist Will McLean through his time at Charleston’s “Carolina Military Institute” in the late 1960s – apparently based on Conroy’s alma mater The Citadel. The focus of the book is the “plebe” system in which first-year cadets are hazed and weeded out. Like Conroy’s other books it is fictional but based on his experiences.
At least a couple of cadets die, and the violence is impressive in its severity. At work to weed out recruits is a secret society called “The Ten” that wields disproportionate influence at the college (did someone say “The Machine”?). How much of the book is based on reality of The Citadel during Conroy’s time is debateable – we have not found a good answer to that question from Conroy. The novel alienated Conroy from The Citadel and his fellow graduates for many years until he was awarded an honorary degree and asked to give the commencement speech in 2000.
One storyline follows the Institute’s first black cadet Tom Pearce, whom Will (as a senior) is assigned to help. We’ve heard of the courage of James Meredith at Mississippi and Vivian Malone and James Hood at Alabama – but imagine being the first black at a military institute where even the white cadets are ruthlessly beaten.
Another storyline follows Will’s friendship/romance with “Old Charlestonian” young lady Annie Kate Gervais. It is primarily through this story that Conroy gives his impressions of South of Broad and Old Charleston.
Film Adaptation (1983)
The film adaptation stars David Keith and other ’80s favorites like Judge Reinhold (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Bill Paxton. The film is a fairly faithful version of the book focusing on the hazing of Pearce and other knobs. Epithets like “coon” and “nigger” are used with a frequency and authenticity – along with Confederate flags and the singing of “Dixie” – that we have a hard time imagining in the Disney tween movies of today.
Completely omitted in the film is the Old Charleston debutante romance storyline – which makes sense since it is unlikely to be of interest outside of Charleston (and maybe Mobile). Also omitted are references to the Vietnam War and Will’s opposition to it – which might have given the film more significance.