Conduct Unbecoming

by Jonathan W. Hickman
reviewed: 2005-11-08

Today when a movie makes the claim that something "unspeakable" will transpire within it, the crime must be of the most base and lurid. It could be said that movies still retained a hint of classic civility and even innocence back in the 1970's when Michael Anderson's "Conduct Unbecoming" was made. In the present day, those films are often lost in the family section and dubbed too soft to be of interest with studios afraid that the PG rating will spell problems at the box office.

The original trailer for "Unbecoming," available on the new DVD release, promises that some "unspeakable" crime occurs in the story. And while today's definitions of what is "unspeakable" have changed, the strength of the excellent "Conduct Unbecoming" hasn't diminished over time.

This film starts with rousing music and the scene of British horse soldiers making their way across the vastness of the countryside of India. At the same time, a train carrying two new officers is heading to the military base. The two soldiers, 2nd Lt. Arthur Drake (Michael York) and 2nd Lt. Edward Millington (James Faulkner), couldn't be any different. Drake is soft-spoken and sensitive to preserving his honor, and Millington is self-centered and apathetic.

When the two men reach the base, they are greeted by an officer who instructs them not to speak unless spoken to and to, above all, obey. Millington has no intention of following these instructions and immediately deviates from the playbook. In time, his actions will land him accused of assaulting the widow of one of the troop's fallen heroes. But what initially looks like an open and shut case intricately becomes something more sinister.

"Conduct Unbecoming" begins with a smallish story and even a clichéd courtroom drama but delightfully becomes an engaging mystery. The courtroom scenes and set-up, a private secret court martial, are handled with critical attention to detail but never seem tedious or laborious. The 1970's score is reminiscent of television fare but works within the confines of the tight story-telling employed. Nowadays, a film like this would seem stodgy and stage play like (see the soon to be released "The Sisters" as a superior modern use of the technique). The dialogue is carefully posed and the acting is on a razor's edge. The mystery, which I wouldn't dare give away, is enigmatic from start to finish and resolved in a manner that would make Agatha Christie smile.

But as much as "Conduct Unbecoming" is about the mystery and courtroom dramatics, it is more about honor and the lengths that one might go through to preserve it. The elusive concept of honor is bandied around in this film and is really at the core of the story. It also provides the film's most introspective moments. And everyone involved in the production is in on the theme, with Michael York's sensitive portrayal of Drake center stage and Susannah York stealing the show in a scene in which she crawls on the floor screaming "PIG, PIG, PIG!"

Watch for our interview with Stacy Keach in streaming audio as well as our text interview with Michael York coming soon.

The Disc
Handsome treatment by Somerville House. The beauty of DVD special features is that it can preserve content that would otherwise be lost forever, in this case, the commentary track by Director Michael Anderson. It was good to hear Director Anderson’s literate discussion of making the film. And he’s sharp as a tack even though he’s 85 years old.

Picture Quality: 8/10
Good transfer but the colors were not as vibrant as they should have been. I noticed no artifacts, pixilation, or delineation.

Sound Quality: 8/10
The score is nothing special although appropriate, but I had to turn this disc up in order to catch the nuances present in the dialogue. Given the fact that this was first a stage play makes the dialogue very important and the mystery makes you hang on every word.

Easter Eggs:
No Easter Eggs Found on Disc.

Extra Features: 7/10
You get two audio commentaries, one from the Director and one from Actor Michael York. The original trailer is nice and nicely transferred. The biography isn’t anything you can’t get on IMDB. The photo gallery is something your seeing more and more these days and this one is basically all staged shots from the filming (it would be cool to see more behind the scenes shots).

The Final Word:

Modern audiences would do well to take in this 1970’s curiosity (a kind of precursor to "A Few Good Men"). I was impressed by how well the civility and honor themes played today.
Jonathan W. Hickman

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