Pros: The performance of Alec Guiness is classic, and John Mills is not far behind.
Cons: Occasionally a bit stagy, in the style of its time.
The Bottom Line: Alec Guiness and John Mills engage in an intense contest for the soul of a Highland Regiment, revealing the subtle class and emotional relationships of all those involved.
When people look back on the distinguished career of the late Sir Alec Guiness, they often think of his introverted Colonel Nicholson in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (Lean, 1957), but three years later, he provided a spectacularly extroverted military bookend in his portrayal of Lt. Colonel John "Jock" Sinclair, in TUNES OF GLORY (1960), for Director Ronald Neame. It is one of my favorite Guinesses, and very nearly his best role.
No other Guiness performance has the energy and dominating force that he contributes to this film.
Acting Colonel Sinclair, "Jock" to his brother officers in the mess, is great company, a Hero of World War II, a jaunty Macbeth with a touch of Richard the Third. He was a poor Glasgow lad shining shoes, who became a "band boy" and worked his way up in a Scottish Highland Regiment like the Gordons, until the death of a Battalion Commander at the crucial British (Allied) victory, El Alamein, gave him a chance to lead. As "Acting Colonel" Sinclair, he led his "bairns" from Normandy to Berlin.
The night TUNES OF GLORY begins, the War has been over for a time. Jock's grown young daughter, Morag (Susannah York) is tripping up the snowy causeway of what looks like Stirling Castle, "The Gateway to the Highlands." She encounters the officer of the watch, Pipe Major Duncan Maclean (Duncan McCrae), who inquires in his gentle Skye dialect why she has come, knowing well that she is to meet Corporal Piper Ian Fraser (John Fraser), the lad she is in love with. In the distance, on the blustery wind, she hears the skirl of her lover's pipes from the warmly lit Battalion Headquarters.
She makes her way to the service door, where her Piper is only able to tell her what she has feared; her father is up for an all-nighter: "Scotland the Brave," "The Skye Boat Song," "The Cock of the North." We follow Corporal Fraser and his fellow piper into the dining room, around the long scarcely cleared table, seeing Jock's Company Officers: Major "Dusty" Miller (Paul Whitsun-Jones), Captain Eric Simpson (Allan Cuthbertson), Major Charlie Scott, MC (Dennis Price), Adjutant Jimmy Cairns, MC (Gordon Jackson) and finally Jock Sinclair himself.
What a sight Alec Guiness makes him! Red haired, dress tunic open at the collar, one of a long line of whiskies in his hand, he glances around defiantly at his enemies and affectionately at his friends. After the pipers have been temporarily stood down, the conversation careens to the subject which underlies Jock's bravado.
We may gather that Brigade has tired of Jock's drunken, sloppy, arrogant leadership. What made him a superb commander of men in war has become a handicap all-around in peace. The officers present are aware that Lt. Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills), son and grandson of former Battalion Commanders, an Oxford graduate, a former subaltern of the Regiment, a prisoner in WWII, has been been assigned, at his own request, from Whitehall to field duty to shape up his old outfit. He is expected in the morning.
Jock's rage and contempt are almost palpable when Barrow arrives in the middle of the night -- as he sees it -- to spoil his last party as CO. Barrow is everything Jock is not: quiet, well educated, a teetotaler, an admirer of the Regimental pre-war social traditions rather than the Wartime ones, a stickler for enforcing The Queen's Orders. As Jock says a little later to drinking buddy Major Charlie Scott, finishing a bottle of Black Label in front of the fire, "It's no right. You nurse them [the troops] . . . just to get some spry wee gent over you at the end. It's no fair, I tell ye."
Charlie Scott continues to snore on the couch, and Jock releases his Piper, asking: "Have ye got a piece of cherry cake downtown?" Dangerously unaware that Morag pines for the laddie. The extraordinary sequence ends with Jock swearing before the still sleeping Charlie that he WILL be Colonel of the Command once more.
The stage is set for tragedy galore.
TUNES OF GLORY is a study of two men, diametrically different in their personalities and management styles. Each has a secret, gnawing at his emotional stability, though Barrow's is not fully revealed until the tragedy at the end.
The film is also a picture of the recent past of British pride and tradition, as represented by its Highland Regiments, now largely discarded in the New Global Economy. These Regiments were first established by Scots Stuart King Charles II after his Restoration of the British Crown in 1660; they were greatly expanded in number following the defeat of Charles the Pretender in 1745, and from that time until following World War II, they were the shock troops of the British Empire. By 1960, these historic units were being disbanded or consolidated in a most humiliating way. [One of the great Highland Regiments found they could not re-outfit their pipe bands because stocks of their tartan had been sold for foreign credits to the U.S. Marines.]
The process of decline is like a wintry wind which sweeps across the parade ground. We see in the snow, drab khaki, defiant color -- and the way men dance in kilts -- the shift of loyalties inevitable when "downsizing" is taking place. Jock Sinclair will lose his daughter, his ladyfriend Mary Titterington (Kay Walsh), his friend Charlie Scott, perhaps the Battalion, perhaps his mind.
Barrow will lose much more.
The screenplay, nominated for an Academy Award, was beautifully written from his own first novel by James Kennaway. He was killed ten years later in a car crash at the age of forty.
A word about the musical score by Malcolm Arnold (THE AFRICAN QUEEN, 1951; BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, 1957, many others). Arnold, now Sir Malcolm Arnold, one of Britain's most respected classical composers, scored the film almost entirely for bagpipes, bugles, whistling, singing, drums, and wind. Only at two tragic points, and in the end credits, does he introduce conventional film music. Bagpipes, in 1960, I might note, were thought "funny" by most Americans. Today few soldiers or policemen are buried without a piper playing the moving Scottish dirge, "The Flowers of the Forest." Arnold's score here is nigh perfect.
But, with due respect to John Mills and the others, it is Guiness who drives the film. Seldom has the fear, effrontery and pride of a soldier, or any man about to lose what gave his life meaning, been so bracingly presented. We admire, despise, celebrate and understand this man who has been a soldier since a boy piper of 14 years.
Alec Guiness: HURRAH!
Causes Alex Fraser Supports