Tunes of Glory
“Whisky for the gentlemen that like it and for the gentlemen who don’t like it, whisky.”
In Ronald Neame’s 1960 film, Tunes of Glory, the incomparable Sir Alec Guinness inhabits the role of Jock Sinclair – a whiskey-drinking, up-by-the-bootstraps commanding officer of a Scottish battalion stationed in Scotland, not long after the end of the Second World War. Jock Sinclair is a Scot, and a lifetime military man, who expects respect and loyalty from his men. But when Lt. Colonel Basil Barrow (played by Sir John Mills) – an educated, by-the-book scion of a traditional English military family – enters the scene as Sinclair’s replacement, the two men become locked in a fierce battle for control of the battalion and for the hearts and minds of its men. Based on the novel by James Kennaway and featuring flawless performances by both Guinness and Mills, Tunes of Glory is a ‘classic’ old British film which used the rigidly stratified hierarchy of British military life as a jumping-off point to examine the institutional contradictions and class divisions of English society, resulting in a moving drama.
If James Kennaway were still alive he might well be considered the grand old man of Scottish fiction. Like Muriel Spark, though, he would probably live elsewhere: he disliked what he saw as the conformism and ‘inbred inferiority complex’ of the Scots. “I suppose if you’re going to stay in Scotland and never move out of this teeny little circle and never want criticism from anywhere, then fair enough,” he once remarked. But that was back in 1957. What would he have made of the country now?
Kennaway died in 1968, aged 40, of a heart attack while driving. He had completed seven novels (two published posthumously) and numerous film scripts. Kennaway, according to his biographer, was ‘a classic candidate for a heart attack, somewhat overweight, a smoker with a high-voltage lifestyle’. There was an edginess, a liking for risks, and emotional if not physical danger, that comes through very clearly in his fiction.
Tunes of Glory, his first novel, grew from his military experience while undergoing National Service with the ‘Gordon Highlanders’ regiment of the British army. Both the book and the film title refer to the bag-piping that accompanies every important action of the regiment. The original pipe music was composed by Malcolm Arnold, who also wrote music for the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Tunes of Glory was generally well received by critics ... the acting in particular garnering much praise. And, Kennaway’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.
The bare bones of this plot give no indication of the deceptively simple accuracy of Kennaway’s prose, nor of his brilliant depiction of characters and indeed an entire society – the male military world enclosed by the high wall of the barracks – in just a few sentences. Kennaway went on to write stylistically and thematically bolder books, like Some Gorgeous Accident and his last work, the short but wonderful Silence, a love/hate story set in a racially divided, riot-torn American city. But Tunes of Glory remains his best-known work, partly because it was made into a superb film but also, perhaps, because it is his most ‘Scottish’ novel. It’s an irony, considering his attitude to Scotland, that might have both amused and irritated him.
The film opens in the officers’ mess of an unnamed Highland Regiment in the early post-World War Two era. Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) announces it will be his last day as Commanding Officer. Sinclair, who had been in command since the battalion’s colonel was killed in action during the North African campaign of the Second World War, is to be replaced by Lt. Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills). Although Major Sinclair led the battalion through the rest of the war, Brigade HQ considered the English upper-class Barrow to be a more appropriate commanding officer.
Colonel Barrow arrives early and observes the battalion’s officers (including Sinclair) having a rowdy mess party.
Barrow and Sinclair briefly swap their respective military backgrounds. Jock Sinclair joined the regiment as an enlisted bagpiper, and then rose through the ranks during the war, to be commissioned as an officer, winning both the Military Medal (a British ‘Silver Star’ equivalent for non-officers) as well as the Distinguished Service Order (a British ‘officers only’ award for extraordinary leadership in combat). Colonel Barrow by contrast came to the regiment directly from Eton College (the famous upper-class boys’ school in London) and England’s prestigious Oxford University; his ancestors having been colonels of the regiment before him – although he served only for a year with the regiment during pre-war 1933, before being posted away from the battalion to ‘special duties’. Jock Sinclair humorously tells Barrow of the time he was briefly thrown in Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison for being ‘drunk and disorderly’ (public intoxication as well as disruptive and obnoxious behaviour), also in 1933. Colonel Barrow rather reticently mentions his own experience as a prisoner in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. Sinclair dismissively presupposes Barrow received preferential treatment being an officer (referring to “officer’s privileges and amateur theatricals”) and that he must have “sat out the war” in a P.O.W. camp. But in fact Colonel Barrow is deeply psychologically scarred after being tortured by the Japanese, but does not tell this to Sinclair who privately resents the fact that he is being replaced by a “stupid wee man” (and an Englishman, to boot !!!).
Colonel Barrow immediately passes several orders which he hopes will instill discipline back into the battalion ... discipline that Sinclair had allowed to slip. Particularly controversial is Barrow’s an order that all officers must take lessons in Highland dancing, in an effort to make their customary rowdy style more formal and suitable for mixed company. However the unchanged energetic dancing of the officers, led by a drunken Sinclair at Barrow’s first cocktail party with the townspeople, incites his anger. An angry outburst by Colonel Barrow only further damages his authority.
Jock Sinclair’s daughter, Morag (played by a young Susannah York) , is observed illicitly meeting with an enlisted bagpiper from Jock’s regiment ... against Jock’s wishes. (Social standards of the day precluded an officer’s daughter having any social or romantic contact with the lower ranks.)
Tensions came to a head when Major Sinclair publicly assaults the uniformed piper he discovered with his daughter ... “bashing a corporal” as Jock put it. Colonel Barrow decides an official report must be made, which means there will be an imminent court-martial for Jock Sinclair, even though the Colonel is aware the action will further erode his popularity and authority within the battalion.
Colonel Barrow is eventually persuaded to back-down by Sinclair, even though Jock was guilty of striking the corporal and deserved to be court-martialled. The decision to back-down further undermines Barrow’s authority; Sinclair along with other officers, treat him with a renewed lack of respect.
Colonel Barrow then discovers other senior officers believe it is Sinclair who is really running the battalion; they believe this because Jock forced Barrow to dismiss the charges against him.
Realising that his authority will never be accepted, Colonel Barrow then suicides, by shooting himself in the head.
After the colonel’s death, Sinclair realises he is to blame. He calls the officers to a meeting and announces plans for a grandiose funeral fit for a field marshal, complete with a march through the town in which all the ‘tunes of glory’ will be played by the battalion’s pipers. When it is pointed out to Jock how disproportionate the plans are, especially given the manner of the colonel’s death, Sinclair insists that it was not suicide but murder! He tells everyone he himself was the murderer, and that, with the exception of the colonel’s adjutant, the other senior officers were his accomplices.
Minutes later, Jock Sinclair suffers a nervous breakdown ... and is then escorted from the barracks, while the officers and men salute as he passes.