There are some films that seem like a window into a bygone age when human values were vastly different to those pertaining today and Conduct Unbecoming certainly falls into this category. It is an intense drama that highlights the behaviour and comradeship of British officers in charge of an Indian Light Cavalry regiment during the days of empire, when honour and tradition was almost a religion. It also questions the then held military belief that the only wounds were physical, to be worn as a badge of courage.
The movie opens with a horseback parade of the Regiment held every year in honour of a past hero, one Captain John Scarlett VC whose blood soaked tunic is on display in the officers’ mess. Their British officers resplendent in bright red tunics take the salute led by an aging Colonel Strang, sporting the sideburns and moustache of the day, an authoritarian role performed to perfection by Trevor Howard. The flirtatious widow Scarlett, who is played by the delectable Susannah York, formally accepts her husband’s medal as she had on previous anniversaries of her husband’s demise. The music soundtrack is provided by Stanley Myers who is probably better known for his haunting Cavatina that became the theme tune for The Deer Hunter. It conjures up the colourful magic of cavalry horses moving in synchronisation.
Two new probationary lieutenants are set to join the Regiment from England. 2nd Lt. Drake, from a middle class background, is keen as mustard and as virtuous as a saint. A typecast role for choirboy Michael York. 2nd Lt. Millington on the other hand is the polar opposite being the son of a general who once commanded the Regiment but he has no appetite to follow in his father’s footsteps. He aims to be cashiered well before the end of the three months probationary period. When they arrive Drake follows all the age-old customs, even joining in the game of chasing a stuffed boar to thrust a sword up its rectum. Well I suppose it’s one way of bonding. The facetious Millington just gets drunk at the officers’ ball and makes a pass at Mrs Scarlett in the nearby garden thinking it should be enough to be shown the exit door, but it doesn’t exactly go to plan.
The buxom widow bursts into the ballroom dishevelled and in a state of hysteria, screaming she’d been attacked and accuses Millington of the dastardly deed. There is outrage and astonishment before the accused is arrested and charged with conduct unbecoming of an officer and gentleman, which is worse than treason when considering the honour of the Regiment. Second in command Major Wimbourne a ladies man but with his finger on the pulse of seemingly everything that happens, advises Colonel Strang that an official court martial would bring scandal and disgrace to the reputation of the Regiment. They therefore opt for an unofficial subaltern court martial held in secret behind closed doors. The responsibility for running this kangaroo court is given to Captain Harper who lives and breathes the Regiment.
Harper appoints himself as president of the court with junior officers making up the rest of the judgement panel. He selects a reluctant Drake as the defence counsel and in private instructs him to offer a plea of guilty so as to avoid the calling of witnesses and the need for depositions. Alas our principled defender submits a not guilty plea much to the consternation of those present including his imposed client. Although the hapless Millington confides his innocence to Drake, he wants to be found guilty and kicked out of the Regiment and return to England. When he learns from Drake that Harper has no intention of handing down such a sentence but instead place him on unpleasant duties for an indefinite period, as punishment for his mockery. Millington realises his plan has been scuppered and it’s time to take matters seriously.
The proceedings take place late at night after the normal daytime duties. Despite a litany of obstacles erected by the strict Harper, whose only concern is to spare the Regiment any dishonour, our defender digs in and slowly unearths the truth behind the assault on Mrs Scarlett who was not the first victim. The Colonel on hearing that a defence against the charge is still being made reads the riot act to Drake but Harper comes to his aid knowing if it can’t be proved who was responsible for the attack his own future with the Regiment will be over. By this time there is a reversal of enthusiasm of the two newcomers with Millington now wanting to make the Regiment his career and Drake deciding it’s not for him. It has a somewhat predictable end with an officer blowing his brains out to avoid any embarrassment to the Colonel and his beloved Regiment. It did however seem an appropriate conclusion to all concerned with maintaining the good name of the Regiment.
There are some memorable performances by Christopher Plummer as the philandering Major Wimbourne and Richard Attenborough as Major Roach who had the misfortune of discovering the mutilated body of Captain Scarlett. I was wary at the idea of an American playing the part of the honourable Captain Harper but Stacey Keach manages it very well. If you watch and enjoy Conduct Unbecoming as much as I did then try Tunes of Glory with the incomparable pairing of Alec Guinness and John Mills who create an atmosphere that is simply electric, waiting for a spark to ignite the tension which duly arrives.