“Gentlemen do not question the honor of other gentlemen,” the imperious Col. Strang tells a cheeky subordinate at a British military base in colonial India, circa the late 19th century. The colonel’s declaration gets to the heart of Conduct Unbecoming, a solid courtroom drama predicated on the Old World notion that persons of good social standing should be considered beyond reproach. Adapted from a play by Barry England, the story revolves around Lieutenants Drake (Michael York) and Millington (James Faulkner), both of whom are new arrivals at Strang’s base. Drake is a proper soldier who comfortably defers to authority and tradition, whereas Millington is an arrogant dilettante who hopes to conclude his national service as quickly as possible. Upon arrival at the base, the lieutenants are inundated with rules about proper conduct, including the strange instruction to avoid the flirtations advances of Mrs. Scarlett (Susannah York), the widow of a beloved officer. Yet during a party, Millington makes a pass at Mrs. Scarlett, who is subsequently attacked.
With Millington the obvious suspect, Strang’s junior officers—led by the officious Captain Harper (Stacy Keach)—empanel an unofficial court-martial tribunal, hoping to keep the scandal private. Millington asks Drake to serve as defense counsel, and Drake assembles evidence that might exonerate Millington. Unfortunately, Drake soon discovers that the regiment plans to railroad Millington whether he’s guilty or not, simply for the sake of expediency and propriety. Therefore, the story ends up exploring two equally relevant dramatic questions: Who really attacked Mrs. Scarlett, and what dirty secrets about the regiment will Drake’s investigation reveal?
Smoothly directed by Michael Anderson (who reteamed with York the following year for the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run), Conduct Unbecoming is unapologetically melodramatic, but the crisp dialogue and skillful acting make the piece quite watchable. (Howard, Keach, and costars Richard Attenborough and Christopher Plummer give especially lusty performances.) On the minus side, the movie’s sound mix is muddy, and the final plot twist is both silly and tawdry. Nonetheless, the central theme of upper-crust people using social position as a shield for depravity has the desired impact, and key technicians (notably cinematographer Robert Huke, editor John Glen, and music composer Stanley Myers) contribute sterling work.
Conduct Unbecoming: GROOVY