Entertainment Magazine

Conduct Unbecoming

Posted on the 05 April 2021 by Christopher Saunders
Conduct UnbecomingMichael Anderson's Conduct Unbecoming (1975) is an odd hybrid: part courtroom story, part military drama, part whodunnit. This adaptation of Barry England's play contains strong performances by a top-tier cast, even if the drama and direction struggle to transcend workmanlike. 

Two young officers, Drake (Michael York) and Millington (James Faulkner) arrive in India to join a regiment of British lancers in the 1880s. The regiment nurses a rigid system of honor, symbolized by Mrs. Scarlett (Susannah York), the widow of a fallen captain. The abrasive Millington alienates his colleagues with his insouciant behavior and crude advances towards Mrs. Scarlett. Then she accuses Millington of assault. Wishing to avoid scandal, Colonel Strang (Trevor Howard) convenes a secret court martial headed by the priggish Captain Harper (Stacy Keach) which stacks the deck against Millington. But Drake, tasked with defending his friend, soon finds undeniable evidence of Millington's innocence - threatening to reveal the regiment's darkest secret. 

Slow, talky and indifferently filmed, Conduct Unbecoming struggles to transcend its stage roots. Anderson manages a few outdoor scenes in Pakistan for local color, but most of the film takes place on the barracks sets, with outdoor scenes marred by obvious matte work. Screenwriter Robert Enders hacks Barry England's intricate stage play down to feature size, but the movie still seems to generate excitement only in its most lurid moments. The details of rape and assault provide a strong hook, but the twist reveal in the final act doesn't feel remotely earned. Suffice it to say that when a top-billed actor has little screen time in a movie like this, it's safe to say they're the guilty party.

Conduct Unbecoming is interesting enough in its thematic materials. Strang's lancers obsess over their history and sense of "honor" while covering up his colleagues' foibles and flaws. The callow Drake quickly becomes disillusioned with military life: the trial of Millington is a farce, which seems designed more to punish a nonconformist than to punish a perpetrator. Millington himself is an odd figure in the drama: the son of a general, he's initially granted a great deal of deference until his impertinence rubs too hard against the grain. Anderson and Enders make a strong point of connecting the violence of military life (symbolized by a crude pig-sticking game) with the sexual violence which drives the plot, revealing honor as a thin shield for class bigotry and human foibles.

The movie's made watchable by an impeccable cast. Michael York is solid as the naïve shavetail who receives a rude lesson in military culture; James Faulkner, on the other hand, overplays Millington's boorishness to the point where his innocence almost seems beside the point. Susannah York makes a strong impression even if her character's motivations aren't entirely clear. The standout performance is Stacy Keach, who plays Harper as a man with a rigid moral code that ultimately transcends loyalty to regimental harmony; his conversion to the side of good is the story's most dramatically satisfying strand. Richard Attenborough and Christopher Plummer are fine in underwritten roles, with Trevor Howard, James Donald and Michael Culver offering reliable character turns.

Conduct Unbecoming is too logy to be an unsung masterpiece, but it's watchable enough. Thanks to a smart script and a solid cast, it's more entertaining than would appear at first glance. 

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog