So, who tried to shove a sword up Susannah York’s bottom, then?
This courtroom drama — a 1969 play by Barry England, minimally adapted for the screen by producer Robert Enders (Voices) — highlights absurdity, hypocrisy and corruption as exemplified by a British army regiment stationed in India circa 1878. It’s also a psycho whodunit with a maniacal mystery villain as demented and twisted as any black-gloved giallo serial killer. Barely disguising the piece’s stage origins, the film has a series of fine actors doing turns on the witness stand without much in the way of movie-movie excitement. Mostly confined to a common room where an unofficial ‘subalterns’ court martial’ is held, Conduct Unbecoming features minimal flashbacks to the aftermath of a massacre three years earlier which is the root cause of the present unpleasantness. For the most part, the film relies on theatre techniques, to the extent of having key witness Marjorie (York) get down on all fours and re-enact her humiliation (still quite a shocking moment, as is her line ‘pig … pig!’) in a highly artificial manner when a literal flashback could easily have been tipped in.
Lieutenants Drake (Michael York) and Millington (James Faulkner), young officers on probation, arrive in India. Both had fathers in the regiment and have been obliged to join up to honour a family obligation, though Millington wants to get out of it by acting so scandalously he is dismissed and sent home within three months. They are exposed to an idiotic set of petty traditions, rules and restraints which sit strangely with savage practices like dragging a stuffed pig around the room to practice a nasty variety of pig-sticking. An Umberto Lenzi version might have run to depicting the act itself with a live porker rather than stylised pretend assault. As with the ill-treatment of Marjorie, British quality cinema circa 1975 wasn’t set up to be that explicit or cruel to animals. The gathered officers revere the tattered uniform of a hero (Marjorie’s late husband, unfortunately-named Captain Scarlett) horribly killed a few years ago and protect the good name of the regiment even if it means covering up hideous deeds. During an overheated ball, Mrs Scarlett (also unfortunately named, evoking Cluedo rather than the Mysterons) staggers in and accuses Millington of vile assault. fanatic Captain Harper (Stacy Keach, a lone American in the cast) is appointed head of the tribunal, Drake gets the thankless task of defending his comrade, and Lieutenant Fothergill (Michael Culver) spits venom as the prosecution.
England’s play is structured around misunderstandings and revelations which string everything out. Millington tries to seem guilty because he hopes to be sent home only to learn that unofficial punishment involves being forced to stay on performing ‘unpleasant duties’. Various folks – notably, the regiment’s doctor (James Donald) – give evasive testimony and don’t reveal how much they actually know. Turning detective, Drake discovers another regimental widow (Persis Khambatta, the bald alien from Star Trek – The Motion Picture) was stuck more severely months before Millington arrived in India. Mrs Bandanai actually got a sword up her rectum, whereas Marjorie was only wounded in the thigh. This casts suspicion around the officers’ mess — jovial Wimbourne (Christopher Plummer) was intimate with both assaulted women — and raises a supernatural angle as the native widow accuses Captain Scarlett’s ghost of treating her as the officers’ treat the stuffed pig. Hugely sidewhiskered Colonel Strang (Trevor Howard) sits in on the trial, bristling with pickled fury. A vital-to-the-plot contradictory streak has the Colonel (and even grim Harper) be as concerned with finding out the truth as covering it up. The reveal comes in a coda which evokes any number of 1970s psycho pictures, as the mateyest, most pleasant suspect Major Roach (Dickie Attenborough) is revealed as the culprit and throws a full-on looney fit. Driven mad by the sight of murdered, castrated Scarlett, he has adopted the dead man’s personality to avenge himself on faithless regimental widows. Attenborough, a habitual underplayer, is always good when he lets himself off the leach and is a splendid villain, even bringing an occult touch to the film as Roach might genuinely be possessed rather than a split personality. In true Brit style, the madman is left in the room with a loaded gun and allowed to commit suicide to minimise fuss.
Michael Anderson is no one’s favourite director, despite a run of recognisable credits – mostly on films you wish were better than they are (The Dam Busters, 1984, Doc Savage – The Man of Bronze, Logan’s Run, Orca). Here, he arranges scenes and lets the cast go to it, lifting lighting tricks from the stage production and refraining from opening up the claustrophobic drama. It has an array of fine playing (in tight red tunics which strangle all these manly torsos) from the sort of actors born, depending on how you look at it, to defend the Empire or oppress the natives. Faulkner gets an ‘and introducing’ credit and is so good you wonder why he didn’t go further (he was Torquemada in Carry On Columbus and Uncle Geoffrey in the Bridget Jones films); he brings just the right smug aristocratic weakness to Millington, subtly showing that this fallible decadent fits in better with his brother officers than sterner man of integrity Drake, who believes in honour rather appearances. A draft screenplay by Terence Rattigan wasn’t used.