[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
Hands-down winner of the Wrongest Possible Project from the Very Beginning Award for 1975 is Conduct Unbecoming, a dreadful adaptation of a perhaps worse play, and a movie so misconceived—by the infallibly inept Michael Anderson—that its very attempts to juice itself with artificial life manage to exacerbate its turgidity. The cast list is imposing but the players, while too professional a lot to come right out and guy the piece, can’t manage to salvage it either. (What the hell, pick up the bucks via a few day contracts and hop a plane to something better: Christopher Plummer’s turn as Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King is discreetly fine enough to erase the memory of half a career’s worth of vainglorious posturing in junk like this.)
The setting is Injah, late-middle Victorian period; specifically, a British Army base where the officers, when not staying in drill to subdue the wily Pathan, get off by way of gentlemanly flirtations with the post widow (Susannah York) and running about like a lot of public-school boys trying to drive their sabres up the nasty bunghole of a stuffed pig on wheels. Turns out one fellow has gone completely bonkers and confused the two recreations, so that one evening an officers’ dance is interrupted by the widow’s screams and her apparition, dress torn and, uh, upper rear thigh bloodied, amidst all those snappy red uniforms. Must avoid scandal, disgrace to the regiment and that sort of thing, and so the accused culprit, a snotty upstart (James Faulkner) whose main goal anyway is to get thrown out of the tropics as fast as possible, is to be tried before a subaltern’s court, an ad hoc judicial body having no official existence even when the post’s senior officers are called to give testimony before it. Several midnight sessions of this tribunal provide the occasion for ghoulish rehearsal of the sins and absurdities by which, and perhaps for which, the glory of the Empire was upheld—the whole wishfully spiced by some of the most preposterous, and more preposterously contrived, red herrings you could never imagine. It’s difficult to believe that even a senescent Angry Young Man would find such goings-on edifying, but I can’t imagine what other audience the silly film was made for. Still, we must thank Anderson and perhaps the producers for one of the authentic howlers of the season: after a pantingly arduous job of invoking some Indian atmosphere with a (presumably on-location) parade field sequence, Anderson brings Faulkner and Michael York to the door of the officers’ mess, a Shepperton soundstage structure framed by two potted palms and backed by the most wrenchingly off-color painted purple mountain range since Victor Mature crossed the Alps. There is a palpable reverberation as the corpse of a stillborn movie hits the floor.
Direction: Michael Anderson. Screenplay: Robert Enders, after a play by Barry England. Cinematography: Bob Huke. Editing: John Glen.
The players: Michael York, Stacy Keach, James Faulkner, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Richard Attenborough.
Copyright © 1976 Richard T. Jameson