So, who tried to shove a sword up Susannah York’s bottom, then? This courtroom drama, based on a play by Barry England, highlights absurdity, hypocrisy and corruption as exemplified by a British army regiment stationed in India in 1878. Because of its stage origins, it presents a series of fine actors doing turns on the stand without much in the way of movie-movie excitement. We get a few trips outside the officers’ common room where an unofficial ‘subalterns’ court martial’ is being held, and minimal flashbacks to the aftermath of a massacre three years earlier which is the root cause of the present unpleasantness. There must originally have been more of this, or else why cast familiar character actor Michael Byrne as a character often talked about but only glimpsed on screen as a dying, mutilated man with no dialogue. For the most part, it 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 much more gruesome flashback could easily have been tipped in.
Drake (Michael York) and Millington (James Faulkner), young officers on probation, arrive in India. Both had fathers in the regiment and are continuing an 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 actually have run to depicting the act itself with a live porker rather than a stylised pretend assault – though, as with the ill-treatment of Marjorie, British quality cinema circa 1975 wasn’t set up to be that explicit. The officers honour the on-display tattered uniform of a hero (Marjorie’s late husband, unfortunately-named Captain Scarlett) horribly killed a few years ago, and uphold the good name of the regiment even if it means covering up hideous deeds. During an overheated ball, the widow Scarlett staggers in after an assault and accuses Millington. Fanatic Captain Harper (Stacy Keach, a lone American in the cast) is appointed head of the tribunal, and Drake gets the thankless task of defending his comrade while 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 get sent home only to learn that his unofficial punishment is likely to be being forced to stay on performing ‘unpleasant duties’, and various folks (notably, doctor James Donald) give evasive testimony which doesn’t reveal how much they actually know. Drake does detective work and discovers another regimental widow (Persis Khambatta, the bald alien from Star Trek – The Motion Picture) was stuck more severely (she actually got a sword stuck up her rectum, but Marjorie was only wounded in the thigh) months before Millington arrived in India. This casts suspicion around the officers’ mess — jovial Wimbourne (Christopher Plummer) was intimate with both assaulted women — and raises a semi-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, bristling with pickled fury, and an odd, vital-to-the-plot streak has the Colonel (and the grim Harper) be as concerned with getting the truth as covering it up. The reveal (SPOILER!) comes in a coda which evokes any number of 1970s psycho pictures, as the mateyest, most pleasant officer Major Roach (Dickie Attenborough) is revealed as the culprit and throws a full-on looney fit. Driven mad by the sight of the murdered and castrated Scarlett, he has adopted the dead man’s personality to avenge himself on faithless regimental widows. In true Brit style, the madman is left in the room with a loaded gun and allowed to commit suicide to minimise the fuss.
Michael Anderson is no one’s favourite director, despite a run of recognisable credits – mostly on films you really wish were better than they are (The Dam Busters, 1984, Doc Savage – The Man of Bronze, Logan’s Run, The Martian Chronicles). Here, he arranges scenes and lets the cast go to it, even lifting lighting tricks from some stage production. 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.