Friday, December 18, 2009

The Friday Night Late Movie: Michael York Defends a Fellow Officer Accused of "Conduct Unbecoming"

Conduct Unbecoming is a harsh indictment of the British Army, circa the 1890s, disguised as a courtroom drama. The irony is that the well-played trial scenes are so engrossing that the film’s point becomes almost too subtle. That hardly seems a fair criticism, though. Perhaps, it’s better to call Conduct Unbecoming a multilayered film in which some layers work better than others.

Michael York and James Faulkner play second lieutenants freshly assigned to the tradition-rich 20th Indian Light Cavalry in India. Mr. Drake (York) is an earnest, young man with middle-class origins, who wants to succeed as a British officer. Mr. Millington is his polar opposite, an impudent cynic from a wealthy family. He would like nothing better than to be kicked out of the army. As soon as we meet Millington, we know he is destined for trouble.

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.

3 comments:

  1. This is an excellent review of a multi-layered film. Drake's passion to do his best reminds me of a line from the unforgettable "The Winslow Boy": "Let right be done!" This is what one would hope a justice system would always embrace. Very well done, Rick!

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  2. Terrific write-up, Rick. I haven't seen this film, but you make it sound appealing. (It's on DVD for anyone interested. I've added it to my Netflix queue.) Michael York isn't my favorite actor, either, but when he's good, he can be very good. He was excellent in a 1987 film by Ruggero Deodato called PHANTOM OF DEATH (aka OFF BALANCE). And York with Keach sounds like a great recipe! Thanks, Rick.

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  3. I wish I had Netflix so I could get this movie, Rick. Your review makes it sound well worth while. I'll keep it in my list of things to watch for!

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