He finds it in the form of Mrs. Scarlett (Susannah York), an attractive widow who enjoys being the center of attention. Although she firmly rejects Millington’s advances during a ball, the young officer pursues her. When she is attacked later that evening, Mrs. Scarlett accuses Millington of the crime. In lieu of a scandalous court martial, the regimental colonel authorizes an informal midnight inquiry. Millington is allowed to choose his own defending officer and selects Drake because he is a “gentleman of honor.”
Drake faces overwhelming pressure during the start of the trial. His client is uncooperative and apathetic. Captain Harper (Stacy Keach), the president of the board, urges Drake to just go through the motions. But the reluctant “lawyer” refuses to give less than 100%. Eventually, the flippant Millington comes to respect Drake and learn the true meaning of duty. Drake’s persistent pursuit of the truth also gradually earns him the support of an influential superior officer (in what may be the best scene).
As with most military dramas, the relationships among the men take center stage. However, it’s unfortunate that the film’s female characters, both victims of atrocious crimes, come across as indifferent. Mrs. Scarlett, in particular, fears doing anything that could result in her “deportation” back in England. In India, she is the admired widow of an Army hero; in her homeland, she is just another pretty face.
Michael York, an actor I sometimes find bland, gives an appealing, convincing performance. He captures Drake’s tentativeness at the outset of the trial (Drake doesn’t know what he’s doing and is afraid he’s ruining his military career). As the trial progresses and Drake comes closer to the truth, York projects an air of confidence and authority. Stacy Keach stands out among the all-star supporting cast, which also includes Trevor Howard and James Donald.
I first saw Conduct Unbecoming at an art film theatre in Bloomington, Indiana. I remember liking it, but it wasn’t until my wife and I watched it many years later that I fully appreciated its virtues (especially a nice little twist involving Drake near the climax). It’s not a great film, but it’s consistently interesting and at times riveting—just what a good courtroom drama should be.