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Film / Conduct Unbecoming

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Conduct Unbecoming is a 1975 film directed by Michael Anderson.

The setting is somewhere on the frontiers of The Raj (British India) in 1878. Two junior officers, Lt. Drake (Michael York) and Lt. Middleton, are arriving to join their regiment of the British Army. They could not be more different. Lt. Drake is a squared-away, spit-and-polish young eager beaver who is eager to make his army career a success. Middleton is a louche young man who apparently is only there due to family pressure, as his father was a famous general. Middleton holds the army in contempt and tells an appalled Drake that he intends to deliberately fail his three-month probationary period so he will be cashiered and sent home.

At the moment the two young men arrive, the regiment is holding a ceremony to comment the third anniversary of a battle. Mrs. Marjorie Scarlett (Susannah York), widow of a Captain Scarlett who was killed three years ago, is given special thanks. Mrs. Scarlett has continued to live in the fort in the years after her husband died, and apparently has assuaged her grief by having affairs with various regimental officers. Both Drake and Middleton are warned to stay away from her, but while the straight-arrow Drake takes the advice, the Mildly Military Middleton is extremely intrigued by the sexy widow.


Middleton's general air of sleaze earns him the dislike of every other member of the regiment, but matters come to a head at a regimental dance. Middleton corners Marjorie in the gardens and tries to seduce her. She blows him off. Moments later, a disheveled, bloody Marjorie runs into the ballroom screaming for help. When asks who attacked her, she identifies Lt. Middleton. Lt. Middleton is brought before a court-martial for assault, and clean-cut Lt. Drake is assigned to be his defense counsel. Drake doesn't want the job at all but after he's ordered to accept it he takes it and resolves to do as well as he can. He soon discovers that the seemingly open-and-shut case is far more complex and mysterious than it appears.

The rest of the All-Star Cast of 1970s British cinema includes Trevor Howard as regimental commander Col. Strang, Richard Attenborough as second-in-command Major Roach, Stacy Keach doing a pretty good British accent as Capt. Harper, and Christopher Plummer as Major Wimbourne.



  • But Now I Must Go: Disgusted at the moral rot in the regiment and how so many of the officers were willing to throw Middleton to the wolves to save face, the once gung-ho Drake resigns from the army after winning Middleton's acquittal.
  • Courtroom Episode: A "subaltern court-martial" in which the junior officers of the regiment try Lt. Middleton themselves, rather than going through official channels and bringing scandal and shame upon the regiment.
  • Flashback: A couple. Mrs. Bandanai's horrifying story of how she was assaulted and stabbed in the buttocks with a sword-wielding officer is shown in flashback. Later, Major Roach's story of how he found the horribly mutilated corpse of Capt. Scarlett in the desert is shown in another flashback.
  • Foreshadowing: The officers of the regiment play a rather creepy game in which one of them races through the officers' mess pulling a stuffed pig on wheels, while the other officers chase the pig and try to stab it with their swords. It's eventually revealed that the bad guy was playing this game with women.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Capt. Harper deliberately sets out to make the court-martial a Kangaroo Court. He gets super-pissed when Drake insists on giving Middleton a real defense and he actively favors the prosecution and threatens Drake more than once. However, that's because he truly believes Middleton is guilty. When the evidence of the dress indicates that Middleton is innocent, Harper flips, supporting Drake and insisting that the court-martial uncover the real truth.
  • Kangaroo Court: What Harper intends the court-martial to be. Mrs. Scarlett having identified Middleton as her attacker, and Middleton not even bothering to deny the charges, Harper convenes a secret and illegal court martial which is intended to find Middleton guilty quickly and quietly. It turns out to not be this only because Drake refuses to play along, although Harper still tries to strong-arm him in court for a while.
    Harper: It is necessary to go through the motions, Mr. Drake.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: After telling Roach that he can't protect him anymore, Wimbourne leaves behind a loaded pistol. Roach then shoots himself and the film ends.
  • Lecture as Exposition: Harper tells Middleton he'll face a subaltern's court-martial, and then says "I shall now explain to you what that means." He then tells Middleton and the audience what a subaltern's court-martial entails—it's basically an off-the-books court martial in which the junior officers of the regiment will deal with Middleton themselves rather than turn him over to regular army justice and a formal court-martial.
  • Oh, Crap!: Middleton isn't too concerned about the court-martial because he thinks he'll get what he's wanted all along, namely, out of the army. When he finds out that instead of kicking him out, the regiment will more likely keep him there for years while making his service as unpleasant as possible, he panics.
  • Plot Hole: Why did Mrs. Scarlett identify Middleton rather than Roach as her attacker? She had no reason to do so.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After finally coming clean with what really happened to her, an enraged Marjorie goes on a rant, telling the entire court that they're all just as bad as the man who attacked her, that they all treat women and the Indian natives as pigs.
  • The Reveal: Major Roach did it. He went mad after finding the horribly mutilated remains of Capt. Scarlett on the battlefield. He came to believe that Capt. Scarlett's soul was possessing him. He played the stab-the-pig game (in a horrifying, deranged way) wiht Mrs. Bandanai and Mrs. Scarlett because he believed them both to be "pigs" for being loose women.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Roach, the most serious member of the regiment, is shown playing chess with another officer in the mess.
  • Title Drop: The formal reading of the charges states that Middleton "conducted himself in a manner unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."

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