Tunes of Glory: Highland Hijinks

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  • Post last modified:August 13, 2020
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Both former Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft, relics from the Bush 43 era, have stated that the interrogation technique of waterboarding is not torture. There’s a scene in this film where Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills) offers the audience a bit of insight into what motivates him. It turns out that the waterboarding that he was subjected to in a Nazi POW camp during the war affected him for life. I imagine that few victims of this technique would call it anything but torture. At every turn, Tunes of Glory emphasizes psychology in the military.

A regiment going through changes
A few years after World War II, a Highland regiment is about to go through changes. Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) has been the commanding officer, but he’s about to be replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow. The two men couldn’t be any more different. Protocol is not very important to Jock, who enjoys drinking whisky with his men; he’s loud and outspoken. Barrow, on the other hand, doesn’t even like whisky, believes in strict conduct and is firm and soft-spoken.

After arriving, Barrow quickly notices that the regiment needs greater authority and orders the men to attend early-morning lessons in Highland dancing, a key feature of the regiment. There must be better discipline. Sinclair is infuriated, but he doesn’t even know that his daughter Morag (Susannah York) is dating an enlisted piper behind his back…

Two very different men
There are many other differences between the two officers. We learn that Sinclair rose through the ranks and fought his way up. Barrow came from posh private schools, but his ancestors were also officers at the regiment and he carries the burden of having to prove to everyone that he can live up to what they did. Getting the regiment in shape is his way of honoring the past. As they clash, it becomes clear to us that both men care deeply about what they’re doing, even if their perspectives differ.

Guinness was reportedly first offered the part of Barrow, which makes sense; after all, he won an Oscar for playing a similar character in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The role seemed perfect for him, but Guinness wanted something different. Mills, on the other hand, often played unsophisticated types, not stern aristocrats. In other words, both actors had their hands full, but deliver all the way through; Guinness is a delight as Sinclair, a rowdy drinker who has a history with a local actress (Kay Walsh), and Mills is touching as the officer with a frail psyche who tries to play Sinclair’s game but eventually realizes that he’s losing. There are no heroes or villains here; the final half-hour has shocking consequences and an attempt by Sinclair to take responsibility that ultimately fails. The final scene is unforgettable.

Director Ronald Neame’s greatest film (along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)) is very capably adapted from James Kennaway’s novel by the author himself; maintaining much of the sharp dialogue, parts of the film look like a play, but the cinematic aspects are obvious as well. Wintry exterior locations were shot at Stirling Castle in Scotland, the actual headquarters of a Highland regiment, adding to the authenticity as much as Kennaway’s personal background, having served with the Gordon Highlanders.

A fine psychological study, with a good supporting cast (including Allan Cuthbertson as a captain who keeps check on everything at the regiment) and a well-fitting part-bagpipe score by Malcolm Arnold, of Bridge on the River Kwai fame.

Tunes of Glory 1960-Britain. 106 min. Color. Produced by Colin Lesslie. Directed by Ronald Neame. Screenplay, Novel: James Kennaway. Music: Malcolm Arnold. Cast: Alec Guinness (Jock Sinclair), John Mills (Basil Barrow), Susannah York (Morag Sinclair), Kay Walsh, Dennis Price, John Fraser.

Trivia: York’s film debut.

Venice: Best Actor (Mills).



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