Another Father’s Day comes and goes. The quote, usually attributed to Mark Twain comes to mind.; ’ When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.’ As a kid, and as a teenager, the things that engaged my late father were hard to understand; although anything but a military man, my dad loved movies where people discussed rank, or were labelled a disgrace to the regiment. Michael Anderson’s 1975 film was the last gasps of that Tunes of Glory cycle; men in red tunics, a court martial, idealistic officers and a background of Colonial India.
Veteran writer Robert Enders adapted this barrack-room drama from a play by Barry England, whose novel and film Figures in a Landscape is still one of the great counter-culture movies, and although Terence Rattigan took an unsuccessful swipe at the script, it’s still a subversive, accusatory broadside against the ruling, military class. Set in the 1890’s, the action centres of a sexual assault on Mrs Scarlett (Susanna York), detailed in a specific way that leaves little to the imagination. Another woman (Persis Khambatta from Star Trek : The Motion Picture) has been similarly attacked; rookie officer Arthur Drake (Michael York) has to find out the real culprit before Millington (James Faulkner) gets the blame.
The thoughts and feelings of women are not explored here; the emphasis is on the evil that men do, and exposing the sustained and official cover-up that allows them to continue doing it. So while there’s a parade of ruddy-faced martinets, the momentum of the film is very much anti-machismo. The cast are impeccable, with Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Christopher Plummer and somehow an imported Stacey Keach all acquitting themselves well. Keach had just come off Terrence Malick-scripted comedy/action flick The Gravy Train, and does a remarkable 180 turn to convincingly play a Brit abroad.
Although the content wouldn’t have been allowed on-screen even a decade earlier, Anderson’s drama is hardly likely to be a darling of the MeeToo era, yet Conduct Unbecoming doesn’t deserve it’s current obscurity; it transcribes a pointed, angry play about the abuse of power, and the presentation is firm and accomplished. And while the side-lining of racial and sexual issues is very 1970s, the film entertains with a whodunit structure, and the punch -line is venomous. The ins and outs of military protocol, which once seemed so dull to me, now seem strikingly observed. And surprisingly, it’s Games of Thrones star Faulkner who steals the film; desperate to get drummed out of the regiment, his acceptance of his fate suggests the disquieting impossibility of getting justice from such a venerable institution as the British Raj.
This has been hard to find, and the link below is for an Amazon DVD at £40 a pop. Surprisingly, it’s currently free on PopcornFlix in the UK.