Conduct Unbecoming (1975) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

England-Conduct-Unbecoming_heinemannThis highly unusual military drama is set in 1880s India and stars Stacy Keach, Richard Attenborough and Christopher Plummer with Susannah York as the widow of a regimental hero who accuses an unpopular new recruit of assault. Michael York is the unlucky lieutenant tasked by his senior officers with ‘defending’ the accused, and their ‘honour,’ at a court-martial. But is the outcome a foregone conclusion?

The following review is offered for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“It is a great mistake, Mr Millington, to be deceived by reputations”

Drake and Millington, two Second Lieutenants still in their late teens, arrive in India to begin their probationary period as junior officers in the regiment where both their fathers previously served with distinction. Drake is from a middle class background, the son of a major, and eager to please and do well; Millington, from an aristocratic family, is desperate to get away as he holds his violent and unyielding father, a general, in contempt and has no belief in the ‘honour’ of the regiment. He intends to go out of his way to behave badly, fail his probation, and be sent home in three months time. Unfortunately this backfires horribly when Millington courts Mrs Hasseltine, the widow of a respected soldier to try and engineer his departure. Instead, having apparently made one drunken advance too many, she accuses him of assault. Initially he refuses to defend himself because, even though she is lying, Millington just sees this as a way to get out of the regiment even faster. But it turns out that they have other plans – they institute an unofficial court held late at night, plan to find him guilty and then punish him by keeping him for 5 or 10 years and so teach him a lesson. Drake, to his initial horror, is tasked with defending him but comes to realise that there is something very spooky going on – and that this is not the first attack to have taken place.

“I don’t know how you can expect me to defend you. I’ve no sympathy for you whatever”

Conduct-Unbecoming-posterSimilar in many respects to EM Forster’s 1924 classic, A Passage to India, which had also had its courtroom section turned into a play in 1960 by Santha Rama Rau, this is the story of an innocent man accused and an oblique look at the rape and despoilment on India under the Raj.  The play works on three levels – a courtroom drama, an instantly recognisable form given an original twist by the surroundings and the fact that it is an unofficial court unrecognised by the army; a class critique, and by extension of the British Empire in India; and a look at the treatment of women at the time. On top of this sits a rather clever whodunit in which the identity of the attacker is very well hidden only to be revealed in the final scene that introduces an unexpectedly spooky, quasi-supernatural element is crucial to the surprising revelations at the end of the story and smartly reinforce the themes of the work.

“Are you familiar with the expression ‘making a point,’ Doctor?”

Conduct-Unbecoming-poster2The 1975 film is an extremely faithful adaptation of Barry England’s hit plat that was first performed in Bristol before transferring to London’s West End where it official opened on the night of 10 July 1969 at the Queen’s Theatre and later also became a moderate hit on Broadway. It was no surprise that the film rights were soon snapped up, though its transfer to the screen proved a bumpy one however. The screenplay was initially entrusted to celebrated playwright and screenwriter, Terrence Rattigan, a seemingly good choice given that he was author (on stage and on screen) of the not entirely dissimilar The Winslow Boy. Unfortunately it was rejected, as was another attempt by respected filmmaker Bryan Forbes. Thus this turned out to be one of these rather expensive productions where in fact only part of the money would be visible on screen with a quarter of a million pounds spent before it really entered into pre-production, costs reaching close to a million dollars before filming even started.  The cast is certainly good value but it has to be said tends to look a bit pokey, the sets at Shepperton Studios looking like, well, sets, making the film feel rather small and confined at times, despite some genuine second unit location shooting in Islamabad and on the North West Frontier.

As filmed, the play has been tidied up a bit to reduce the number of characters so that Mrs Hasseltine becoming Mrs Scarlett while Drake now leads the boar chase game, while the Colonel is given a son in flashback (played by Michael Byrne) to humanise him a bit but otherwise the plot, characters and dialogue are transcribed very faithfully with only the scene settings altered, predictably, to provide more in the way of visual variety. Michael Anderson, a director very good with spectacle like Around the World in 80 Days, The Dam Busters and Logan’s Run but also able to handle more intimate drama like Chase a Crooked Shadow (which I previously reviewed here) is a good choice, though it is a shame that the film is so theatrical, presumably due to budgetary considerations. The main sets are well-realised but, as I say, it is quite clear that they are sets and that just outside the windows is a painted backdrop – for a film from the mid 70s this must have made it all seem extremely archaic and can’t have helped it at the box office. This is a shame because this is a strong drama, with a good sting in the tale and a cast that is very good value, cutting across several generations but thankfully able to maintain a unity of style (even in the slightly surprising case of Stacy Keach who as a British officer is terrific in a large role, thanks not least to an accent that never falters).

“You’re a fool, Arthur! You are expected to go through the motions, not to indulge a talent for legalistic moralising”

Conduct-Unbecoming_DVDDVD Availability: The best edition is probably currently produced in Canada (easy to get on Amazon) as it include a widescreen transfer and two audio commentaries – one with Michael York and the other with director Michael Anderson. The colours are a little bit muddy but this otherwise is more than acceptable.

Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
Director: Michael Anderson
Producer: Michael Deely, Barry Spikings
Screenplay: Robert Enders
Cinematography: Bob Huke
Art Direction: Ted Tester
Music: Stanley Myers
Cast: Michael York, Stacy Keach, Susannah York, Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Plummer, Persis Khambatta, James Faulkner, James Donald, Michael Culver

This review was submitted as part of Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in ‘Legal’ the category:

markX-vintage-silver-card1

 

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to Conduct Unbecoming (1975) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – Thanks as ever for this interesting and informative review. You always have such deep background knowledge on the films you discuss. I was actually thinking of A Passage to India as I was reading the first paragraph of your post; I certainly see the similarities. And it’s interesting how something that works so well as a novel and then a play gets a bit bumpy when filmed. Sill, I’m happy to hear that the film was faithful to the novel (yes, I admit it – picky purist here).

    • Thanks Margot – it is exceptionally close to the original play and I suspect that the earlier attempts probably took a more imaginative approach – but that is the purest surmise – the film is certainly worth a look and I thinkt he DVD is easy to get hold of.

  2. Colin says:

    Ah, I haven’t seen this for many years but I do remember finding it reasonably good. Again, hazy memories here yet I recall a sense that it looked a bit cheap. I guess that was a result of, as you say, the dominance of fairly limited sets. Interesting background stuff there too as i never knew there were problems getting the script together, and thus causing budgetary issues to affect the movie.

    An unusual setting too, which adds to the interest of the film. Anderson’s work really did decline quite sharply after this though.

    • Thanks Colin – I suspect you may be right about Anderson, who is very much on home ground with this one – certainly I find it hard to think with much affection of any of his films after this one (never that keen on Logan’s Run in fact – weirdly preferrred the TV spin-off!)

      • Colin says:

        I feel about the same about Logan’s Run as it happens, and then that was followed up by the pretty dire Orca. A bit of a shame really as his earlier work, which I know you’re also a fan of, shows how good he could be.

        • I’d forgotten about Orca! Those darn Italian knock offs! He did a thriller. I did like his version of The Sea Wolf with Charles Bronson and Christopher Reeve – not earth-shattering (give me the Curtiz any day), but a decent TV-Movie I thought. However, Millennium is a real guilty pleasure as I am a real sucker for time travel stories and I saw that one at the Odeon leicester Square when it came out – it falls apart at the end but mostly I liked it a lot. Haven’t seen Dominique, his supernatural drama with Cliff robertson nor Murder by Phone with Richard Chamberlain.

          • Colin says:

            I haven’t seen any of those later works except Millennium, and that was a TV showing ages ago so I can’t really comment on how good or bad it was.

            Of his earlier films, I’m struggling to remember whether I’ve seen the 60s potboiler Flight from Ashiya – something tells me I have but I may well be mixing it up with something else.

          • I haven’t seen Flight from Ashiya either – Millennium got a fairly decent DVD release (with an alternate ending in fact) – must look at it again when I get home. I always reckoned that the use of the Churchill quote at the end must have come from Anderson …

          • Colin says:

            He also made an adaptation of The House of the Arrow which I’ve never seen. You? I remember reading the book after finding out J D Carr rated it highly – I thought it was very poor and it left me completely cold.

          • Nope, me neither – in fact I would really like to see some of these early films by Anderson and Guy Hamilton for ABPC – some are available I think …

          • Colin says:

            Well The House of the Arrow is certainly available on Amazon.

          • Thanks Colin. I’ve been eyeing it though in fact, but at the moment I am replacing several copie sof my John Dickson Carr collection (I have many of them only in Italian), so it may be a while before I take a punt …

          • Colin says:

            If you’re having problems sourcing JDC stuff then drop me a line and tell me the titles as I have some spare copies.

          • Oooh, that’s a dangerous thing to offer :) Thanks.

          • Colin says:

            You’re most welcome!

  3. neer says:

    Sergio, this is quite a departure. Usually, it is an Indian who is being accused of raping a White woman. Now a white man – and a blue-blodded Brit at that – gets the same rap. I am really interested in reading how the author has handled this extremely sensitive issue. Thanks for the review which has me intrigued, esp. the sting at the end.

    • Thanks Neeru – I suspect author Barry England had read the Forster book (and maybe even seen the play as it had been televised by then) – the film and play do tell a very good story and as you say, take a different approach. It doesn;t have as much to say about the British in India as it might but makes its points about colonialism by a more indirect route.

  4. Very interesting Sergio. I remember that there was a play of that name, but was not aware of the film. And last year I read (and blogged on) an impressive novel by Barry England, Figures in a Landscape. So this sounds very much worth a punt. I’ll have to see if I can get hold of a copy.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    Completely new to me as well. So many films from England never seem to make their way over here.

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen the film and I regard it as brilliant. Definitely worth seeing.
    First, there is a lot of humour, especially the pompous and ritualistic behaviour of the British army officers. It often made me laugh.
    Second, there is a good mystery. A clever whodunit. The suspense becomes unbearable towards the end.
    Third, there is an excellent court room drama.
    Thus the movie is a very good mix of humour. mystery, suspense and court room drama.

    • Thanks Santosh – so glad you liked it too. I think it offers a substantial reward on the 2-hour investment and I think will surprise many viewers. Glad you pointed to the humour as it is definitely there but I failed to really mention that aspect.

  7. 282daniele says:

    Sergio, Buona Pasqua! In ritardo..ma sempre Buona Pasqua!
    Sto scrivendo un articolo una volta tanto non critico ma puramente informativo a riguardo del Detection Club, partendo dalla citazione di Carr nel saggio che tu mi hai fornito.

    Ho saputo che in Inghilterra, l’anno scorso, è uscito un libro di Lucy Worsley, A Very British Murder, che dovrebbe essere se ho capito bene una specie di riduzione di una serie prodotta dalla BBC. Mi interessa quello che dice a pagg. 262-263, a riguardo di Ngaio Marsh. Tu ce l’hai quel libro? MI interessa esattamente il passo in inglese. Fa riferimento al 1937, e non ho capito bene dalla fonte che la cita, se Marsh era presente in quella data perchè invitata o se avesse solo citato da altri quello che aveva saputo. Nel 1974 è stata ammessa assieme a Peter Lovesey, se ricordo bene.
    Ciao.
    Piero

    • Ciao Piero – buona pasqua. Io il libro no ce l’ho (ho visto solo p[arte della series, che non mi e’ andata poi tanto a genio), ma so che Curt l’ha letto perche ne a parlato a il suo blog.

  8. John says:

    I’ll admit that you got me with that line about the quasi-supernatural business towards the end. Now I’m torn between tracking down the movie or finding a copy of the play. This is a script, yes? There’s no novel by the same name, is there? If so, it’s incredibly scarce. I only found scripts being sold. Not a single novel. Thanks for another enticing intro to a writer and work I’ve never heard of. We seem to be having a duel of “gotcha” with these forgotten books and writers this year. I kinda like it! :^D

    • Thanks chum but nobody can beat John F when it comes to unearthing forgotten mysteries, nobody! This is definitely a play (I donl;t think there was a novelisation) and that’s what I quoted from here – the movie is very faithful (too faithful frankly), so frankly script or DVD either will do! The hardback edition that I have can be found here though the standard edition from Samuel French is cheaper..

  9. Sergio, this is terrific! I’d no idea about this book (leave alone the film adaptation) or its author although I’d heard of Santha Rama Rau and especially her father, Benegal Rama Rau, a career diplomat. I’ll see if I can find both novel and book. The comparison with Forster’s classic is one reason I want to read the book.

    • Thanks Prashant – to be clear though, this is a stage play so in the review I was quoting from the published play script. The hardback edition that I have can be found here though the standard acting edition (from Samuel French) is cheaper. Would love to know what you make of it.

  10. Yvette says:

    Though that era of film making (looking back) suffers from ‘tackiness’ and ‘cheap,cheap’ – I still think I’d like to see this one, Sergio. A good cast, some humor, uniforms, and a whodunit. Sounds promising. Thanks for the intro to yet another ‘unknown’ (by me) film.

    • Hope I wasn’t too hard on this – it’s a really solid play turned into a solid if slightly old-fashioned movie – just because you can smell the greasepaint doesn’t mean it ‘aint good!

  11. Bev Hankins says:

    Very interesting entry for the Bingo challenge, Sergio. It tackles some important issues. I’m not one for reading plays as a rule, so I doubt I’ll be searching this one out. But thanks for the stellar review as always.

    • Thanks Bev – I saw the film first but really wanted to see what the play was like, but they are incredibly similar as it turns out – interesting stuff, as you say, thematically so worth a look.

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