Friday, September 22, 2023

Tunes of Glory (1960): What happens when a victorious regiment comes home?

This post was written for Terence Towles Canote's 10th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon, where you will find plenty more articles on British cinema.

What is the most successful piece of casting against type in a British film? 

There’s Richard Attenborough’s turn as a bull of a Sergeant Major in Guns at Batasi. There’s James Fox as Chas in Performance, whose hooded eyes and half-smile haunt British gangster films to this day.

And there’s another candidate. How about Alec Guinness playing a hard-drinking officer in a Scottish regiment - red hair and all - who has been promoted from the ranks?

It may sound ridiculous, but you need only watch the trailer above to see that it’s not. In fact, Guinness’s performance as Major Jock Sinclair in Tunes of Glory reminds us what a peerless actor he was.

This post contains spoilers, but there's good news. You can watch the film on YouTube first if you wish (just don’t tell them I sent you).

Directed by Ronald Neame, Tunes of Glory is set in the barracks of a Scottish regiment just after the end of the second world war.

Though Jock Sinclair, in his own words, has led the regiment "from Dover to Berlin", he is still just a Major. He holds a brevet rank as Lieutenant Colonel, but as Wikipedia explains, brevet ranks are given as a reward but do not necessarily confer the authority and privileges of that higher rank.

We first see Sinclair holding court at the end of a regimental dinner - there are pipers and oceans of whisky. He has news: the regiment is getting a new colonel and it’s not him. It is to be Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow, who is played by John Mills.

The Wikipedia entry on Tunes of Glory has an admirable plot summary, so I’ll let it take up the tale for a little:

Colonel Barrow arrives a day early and finds the officers dancing rowdily. He declines sharing a whisky with Sinclair, taking a soft drink instead. They exchange histories. Sinclair enlisted as bandsman in Glasgow and rose through the ranks, Barrow came from Oxford University. He served with the battalion in 1933. Assigned to "special duties", he has lectured at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Sinclair humorously notes that he was in Barlinnie Prison's cooler for being drunk and disorderly one night in 1933. 

When Sinclair presses Barrow about his war years, he replies that he, too, was "in jail". Sinclair recalls that Barrow was a prisoner of the Japanese and belittles the experience - "officers' privileges and amateur dramatics". Barrow simply replies that Barlinnie would have been preferable.

At 3 am Sinclair is drinking with Major Scott, played by Dennis Price, and we hear his outburst to him: "I've acted Colonel, I should be Colonel, and by God... I bloody well will be Colonel!"

Barrow proves to be a martinet and is not prepared to cut the battle-weary regiment any slack. He takes particular exception to the rowdy style of Highland dancing they favour, and orders all the officers to take lessons so they dance they way he wants them to when he holds a cocktail party for the local gentry.

This reminds me that, in a recent episode of The Rest of Politics, Alastair Campbell was surprised to learn that Rory Stewart had dancing lessons when he held a gap-year commission in the Black Watch at the start of the 1990s.

Anyway, the dancing after the party gets rowdy despite Barrow’s efforts and, red faced and furious, he breaks up proceedings before fleeing in shame at his own behaviour. He knows that the bulk of his officers feel a loyalty to Sinclair that they do not feel to him, and the evening can only have made things worse. To the modern viewer, it seems obvious from this and from the collection of tics and twitches Mills deploys, that he is suffering post-traumatic stress from his wartime experiences.

I sometimes struggle to understand the esteem in which John Mills was held as an actor in Britain - he had an unfortunate habit of being cast in roles for which he was visibly too old - but he is good in Tunes of Glory. Particularly so, as his character is less immediately appealing than Alec Guinness’s and does not allow for the same bravura acting.

The clash between these two flawed characters has an almost Shakespearian heft. As the retired US Marine Corps infantry officer and historian Reed Bonadonna observes, it’s tempting to say that each has the qualities the other lacks – “Sinclair is a warrior and leader of men, but he’s hopeless as an organiser and disciplinarian.”

He goes on:

Despite their obvious differences, the two leads are similar in the sense that both are essentially lonely and unfulfilled. Both have been married but are now on their own. Sinclair has a grown daughter with whom he has a loving but somewhat distant relationship. Both are burdened by their memories of the war.

Barrow spent years in harsh and unproductive captivity. Sinclair suspects that his best days are over, and even that his wartime success was a fluke. They also share a keen sense of the burden and isolation of command. There is the hint of Othello in Tunes of Glory, with Barrow as the Moor and Sinclair as his Iago.

And it is Sinclair’s relationship with his daughter that brings things to a head. Unknown to Sinclair, but known to many others in the barracks, she has been going out with one of the regiment’s pipers. When he finally comes across them together, he strikes the corporal.

This is a clear court-martial offence and Barrow is first minded to bring charges against him. But he is put under pressure by almost everyone to deal with the matter himself. He goes to see Sinclair, who promises that he will be supportive in future if Barrow shows him leniency.

Against his better judgement, he decides against a court martial, only to find that Sinclair does not change at all. He still gives him no support and continues to drink with his 'babies', as he calls the  officers loyal to him. Humiliated, Barrow leaves them, goes upstairs and shoots himself.

Ironically, it is in his reaction to Barrow’s suicide that we see the best of Sinclair. His command of the situation and concern for the young soldier who found the body make us see why he was a good leader in battle and inspired respect and even affection in the men under him.

To assuage his guilt - "it’s not his body I fear, it’s his ghost," he says to himself at one point - he plans a grandiose funeral for Barrow. As he describes it to the other officers we hear the pipe band playing the 'tunes of glory', but it becomes clear to them that he has lost his reason and the room empties.

"Oh my babies, take me home," Sinclair pleads to Scott and another officer, and as he is driven away, the film ends. With one protagonist dead and the other driven mad, Tunes of Glory, it occurs to me, has unexpected parallels with Performance.

The supporting cast here is uniformly excellent. Dennis Price’s Major Scott is a typically disengaged Price character. We wonder if he is just a sardonic observer of the tragedy, or if he is the real Iago, encouraging Sinclair and Barrow to destroy one another so he can become Colonel amid the wreckage?

Gordon Jackson plays Captain Jimmy Cairns, the other officer who is there with Sinclair at the end. Yet he has also been Barrow’s right-hand man as he struggles to reform the regiment. Jackson always did have the knack of playing good men who were not dull, which is a rare gift. Certainly, the villains in British films of the Fifties are often surprising dark and alluring, whereas the heroes are just wet - compare Dirk Bogarde and Jimmy Hanley in The Blue Lamp.

Many of the other officers are played - and well played - by familiar faces: Gerald Harper, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Allan Cuthbertson (who you will recognise him from gourmet night at Fawlty Towers, if nowhere else). The Pipe Major is Duncan Macrae, who appeared in every film about Scotland made after the war and was always a welcome presence.

Sinclair’s daughter Morag is played by Susannah York in her first film role. Liberal Democrat readers may be interested to know that York was at RADA with our own Flick Rea. Trivia fans will be interested that Flick told me that a young man from Liverpool shared their classes for two terms but did not make the grade. So he returned North to the family business, to re-emerge a few years later as the manager of the Beatles.

Tunes of Glory is an exceptionally good film. As another American military writer, Jim Shufelt, says:

This is not a 'war movie', but Tunes of Glory features an intense portrayal of leadership, discipline and reintegration issues common to soldiers and units of any conflict, army, or time period.

He goes on to suggest that watching it could form part of current-day officers’ professional development.

This is not a surprise: the screenplay is by James Kennaway, adapted from his own novel of the same name. Kennaway himself held a commission in a Scottish regiment while doing his National Service. He was invited by the Colonel to apply for a permanent commission, but declined, in part because of the tensions between his fellow officers.

Tunes of Glory was on a list of 10 British films that should be better known I posted recently. Maybe you’ll find another there to enjoy?


tom j jones said...

I saw this as a kid/teen on TV a few times with my Dad (who was a British Army officer), and it's a great piece of work. Unfortunately, I then read the brilliant and very funny Private Mcauslan stories by George MacDonald Fraser, which are about a Scottish Highland battalion immediately after WW2, in Egypt and Scotland, and can't watch Tunes Of Glory any more, as I know I'd laugh at the wrong times.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Tunes of Glory is an excellent film. I caught for the first time a few years ago on TCM. And I have to agree. Alec Guinness is great in the film, showing how fantastic he was as an actor. It is one of my favourite movies about the British military. Anyway, thank you for taking part in the blogathon!

Silver Screenings said...

Saw this recently for the first time and Alex Guinesses' performance blew me away. Every time I see him for the first time in a film, I become a fan all over again.

I didn't know what to expect of this movie. As you pointed out, it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it's anything but. So engrossing! Time to see it again, methinks.