This 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”
Based on a play by Barry England, the story is similar 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 – both are stories of an innocent man accused of sexual assault but also provide an oblique look at the rape and despoilment of 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 critique of the class system, 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 revealed in the final scene that introduces an unexpectedly spooky, quasi-supernatural element that 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?”
The 1975 film is an extremely faithful adaptation of England’s hit play. First performed in Bristol, it transferred to London’s West End and opened on 10 July 1969 at the Queen’s Theatre. It 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. The adaptation 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 his draft was rejected, as was another by respected filmmaker Bryan Forbes. Thus this turned into one of these rather expensive productions where only a small part of the money would be visible on screen, with a quarter of a million pounds spent before it really entered into pre-production, with costs reaching close to a million dollars before filming even started. The cast is certainly good value but it has to be said that the finished product 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, with 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 spectacles 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. Indeed, according to a recent interview for the Blu-ray release given by the film’s editor and second unit director, John Glen, Anderson opted to rehearse his cast extensively but then shoot the film in under 3 weeks. 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. The cast is also 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”
DVD Availability: 2020 update – this film has now been given a decent release on blu-ray with a significant uptick in terms of picture quality. It not only includes the two audio commentaries from the old DVD (see below), especially valuable as Michael Anderson has since passed away, but brand new interviews with John Glen, Stacy Keach and and James Faulkener that collectively run just under an hour. Previously, the best edition was produced in Canada (easy to get on Amazon) and 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: