The film offers a portrait of the hierarchical structure, both formal and informal, of a Catholic boys' school. New student Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) must submit to the bizarre rituals of his peers and the expectations of the school's administration by selling chocolates as a fundraiser. A secret student society, The Vigils, assigns Jerry the task of refusing to sell chocolates for one week, an act which draws the ire of the school's clever but cruel and manipulative acting headmaster, Brother Leon (John Glover). However, Jerry continues refusing to participate in the chocolate sale well after the week is up, and it becomes apparent that he is acting on his own. When he is pressed for a reason as to why he is refusing to sell the chocolates, Jerry never gives an answer, and seems not to even have one.
The Vigils are drawn into an alliance with Brother Leon to ensure the sale succeeds, as both now have their reputations on the line. Leon needs the sale to succeed so no one will know he overstepped his authority in spending $2,000 of school money on the chocolates, and The Vigils cannot have anyone getting the idea that someone can defy them and get away with it–which is exactly what some students think is happening. The Machiavellian and creative Archie Costello, Assigner of The Vigils, summons Jerry to a face-to-face meeting before the secret society and orders him to sell the chocolates. When Jerry still doesn't, Archie steps up the harassment and bullying being arranged to pressure Jerry into giving in. At the same time, he organizes a Vigils-backed publicity campaign at Trinity, under a simple yet brilliant slogan that he presents to the other Vigils: "We'll make selling chocolates popular." Public opinion at Trinity begins to turn against Jerry. He goes from being seen as a rebel hero to the only one not possessing enough school spirit. Roland Goubert, popularly known as "The Goober", quietly joins Jerry in refusing to sell the chocolates, but the 50 boxes he was to sell are sold by other boys and then credited to his name, helping keep up the illusion that every single boy but Jerry is eagerly participating in the sale.
Hounded everywhere he goes, Jerry is cornered on the way home from school by Emile Janza, a strong and brutish boy brought into the harassment campaign by Archie. After being taunted into anger by Emile, Jerry is ambushed by a group of local children and beaten up. Archie calls him soon after, and convinces Jerry that the ambush was all Emile's idea and that Jerry will have a chance to get his revenge if he wants it. Jerry, Emile, Archie, and almost the whole student body of Trinity come out to the school grounds at night, for a boxing match between Emile and Jerry. Each blow will be decided by a boy who has bought a ticket and has written on the ticket who is to throw the punch and in what way. Vigils President Bill Carter and Secretary Obie Jameson, envious of Archie, have conspired against him and invoke an old tradition among The Vigils: whenever the Assigner orders a student to perform an Assignment, he must draw a marble from a black box. Inside are several white marbles and one black one. After drawing a white marble for Jerry's place, Archie draws the black marble for the first time in his career in The Vigils, meaning he must take Emile Janza's place in the match.
Bitter and resentful, Archie fights in accordance with the rules at first, but soon breaks from the plan and attacks Jerry on his own. Ill-suited to physical confrontations, Archie is quickly beaten by an enraged Jerry, but Jerry's elation is cut short when he looks out in the cheering crowd and sees Emile, Carter, Obie, and Brother Leon all watching proudly, congratulating him on his success. Jerry realizes that even though he has won, he has played into the machinations of Leon and The Vigils anyway. His attempted act of rebellion ended up helping Brother Leon and The Vigils get the chocolates sold and remain in power at Trinity. The next day, Obie Jameson, the new Assigner of The Vigils, gleefully gives his first orders to a subdued and humiliated Archie, who has been demoted to Secretary.John Glover as Brother Leon
Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Jerry Renault
Doug Hutchison as Obie Jameson
Wallace Langham as Archie Costello
Corey Gunnestad as Roland "Goober" Goubert
Brent Fraser as Emile Janza
Robert Davenport as Brian Cochran
Jenny Wright as Lisa
Bud Cort as Brother Jacques
Adam Baldwin as Bill Carter
Ethan Sandler as David Caroni
Doug Hutchison, who portrayed 18-year-old Obie Jameson, was 27 when this movie was filming.
The film had a paltry music budget of about $15,000. Most of the artists featured on the soundtrack allowed the filmmakers to use their songs inexpensively. David Bowie, however, asked for $100,000 to utilize his song "Heroes" during the final scene and credits, so Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" was substituted.
While the film generally adheres to the plot of the novel, the ending of the film contains significant changes that diverge from the novel's plot and themes. These changes have commonly been seen as negative, and have been strongly criticized for compromising the messages of the novel and attempting to force a more uplifting "Hollywood ending" to the story.In the novel, Jerry Renault must box Emile Janza, the school bully. In the film, Janza's place is taken by Archie after he draws a black marble, as opposed to the book, where he draws two white marbles.
Jerry wins the boxing match in the film, pummeling Archie and winning the praise of his classmates, much to his own chagrin, as he has now played into the Vigils' manipulations. In the novel, Jerry is beaten to semi-consciousness by Janza, and taken to the hospital, having lost the war.
Archie maintains his control of the Vigils in the novel, whereas in the film, he is physically beaten by Jerry and ultimately replaced by Obie, who, as Assigner, creates less thoughtful, more simplistic assignments.
On a $500,000 budget, The Chocolate War grossed a mere $303,624, and is considered a box office flop.
The film received positive reviews from critics, and currently has a score of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 11 reviews with an average rating of 6.9/10.
The film was released on DVD on April 17, 2007. The special features consist of:Audio commentary by director Keith Gordon
Interview with director Keith Gordon