Monday, May 5, 2014

"Tunes Of Glory" (1960) Dir: Ronald Neame

What I remember:

Not a lot, for sure. It's got to be 40 years at least since I watched this on WNET with my Step-Father. We typically didn't do a ton of male bonding; he was often at work in one of his restaurants when I was home from school. Football was huge in our family, and he would often chuck the pigskin around in the apartment, much to my Mom's chagrin. Once in a while, though, he'd be home, and we would catch a game or a movie together. I definitely remember "Tunes of Glory" playing pretty regularly on WNET's classic film showcase, and I know we watched it together, and then butchered Scottish accents for a good while after. 

This, along with "The Lavender Hill Mob", "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and, of course, "Bridge on the River Kwai" were my reference points for Sir Alec Guiness. He had yet to debut his most famous character, Obe-won Kenobi. This was an entirely different role for the great actor; not comic, and not stiff-upper lip British. Jock Sinclair was a tough, heroic military man, who's wild behavior suited the battlefield far better than it suited the halls of Commissioned Officers, halls that were populated by the upper crust of British society. 

What's a warrior to do during peacetime? How does he deal with petty bureaucracy and backstabbing colleagues? How does he cope with upper class attitudes and prejudices?

If he's a Scot, then he drinks and causes trouble. And if he's played by Sir Alec, then he's damn entertaining doing it!

After re-watching:

"Did ye hear what he said about whiskey, Charlie? Doesn't drink it, says he!"

"We're on a first name basis in this regiment. Your first name is Eric; my first name is Major."

- Jock Sinclair

The night before a Scottish Regiment is to receive a new Commanding Officer, a Colonel Barrows (John Mills), their acting C.O., Major Sinclair (Alec Guiness) throws a party for the Officers with drinking and dancing. The new Colonel surprises them by arriving early, and puts a damper on things. The next day Barrows implements a lot of changes that affect the regiment's decorum. The time is shortly after the end of WWII, and in the war Sinclair was a desert war hero, while Barrows was a tortured P.O.W. Sinclair is popular with the men, and unhappy about being replaced. He puts Barrows in a tough situation by publicly striking a Corporal in uniform, a offense that is worthy of a court martial.


Back in the day, I had an idea for a restaurant called "Dinner & A Movie". This is way before that TBS show of the same name that ran in the '90's. 

The idea was that a place would run a classic and/or foreign movie, and serve a menu that related to the time and place of said film. For example- you could show "Amarcord" and serve a rustic Italian menu, or "Smiles of a Summer Night" and serve Smorgasbord. Having been brought up in the restaurant biz, I realized how difficult it would be to develop a new menu every week, retooling the kitchen and buying from different purveyors. Plus it usually takes a week or two to hone a new menu to acceptability. Of course, nowadays we have pop-up restaurants as a craze, so maybe the idea was just before its time. 

I think if my restaurant had shown "Tunes of Glory", you'd have had a problem with attendance,  with our menu of Haggis and Blood Pudding.
Rather than do that, I decided to watch this film with a tumbler of Laphroaig Single Malt in my hand (and eventually me belly). This accomplished 2 things:

  1. I got drunk.
  2. I identified stronger with those who drank. "Whiskey all around!", I shouted from my basement couch. It was the cheapest round I'd ever bought. My Bichon did not even finish her glass.

Now you are probably thinking that my inebriation might make me somewhat of an inauthentic voice; that my critique might be a bit one-sided or simply skewed. Not so, says I, not so! I believe it attuned me all the better to the goings on in the film. 

Scotsman James Kennaway, who had fought with this regiment in WWII, wrote the original novel and the screenplay adaptation. The story seems very real and the PTSD issues that Barrows exhibits are obviously based on some personal experiences or observations. I guess in those days they called it "shell-shocked". He also seems quite well informed on the everyday activities of the regiment during peacetime. Sadly, Kennaway died young from a heart attack at just 40 years old. 

There is a correlation to "Breaking Bad" here. In that superb series, you begin by identifying with Walter White, the cancer stricken chemistry professor who can't afford treatment, and decides to cook crystal meth to raise money. But as the series develops, you begin disliking him and identifying more and more with his brother-in-law Hank, the DEA agent assigned to his case. 
In "Tunes of Glory", you totally identify with Sinclair to start; he has been passed over for leadership by the higher ups simply because of his lower class roots, and the job has been handed to an officer who is obsessed with decorum and detail.  As the film unfolds, you begin to realize that the ruddy Sinclair is self-serving, and wholly devious, while the stick-up-the-ass Barrows is a man whose entire life has been aimed towards running this regiment, a place wherein he grew up having been a legacy. 

When you realize that Barrows is a former P.O.W. who was tortured, then you see why his veneer is so thin. He becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses, and you start feeling for him. When Sinclair hits the young Corporal whom he has caught at a pub with his daughter, he becomes a despicable drunk, out of control without any limiter. When the Colonel agrees not to pursue a court martial, and Sinclair states that he won't regret it (even though he obviously WILL regret it),  your allegiance has switched completely. 

Both characters are warriors who have been damaged by war, and who need a battle to feel like they are living. There is a great scene, when Sinclair's old flame comes by to rev up his engines in the face of the possibility of a court martial, and she reminds him of what a fierce man he can be. The flames are fanned, and you know he will fight for his status, and try and disarm Barrows. 


Ronald Neame, veteran actor's director, shot the film with a static camera, not letting any tricky film style interrupt the proceedings or the performances. The result is very much like watching a play. The castle where the regiment is housed was shot for establishing shots only. Everything else was at Shepperton Studios. There is no cutting on action, only after camera movement has ceased. 
Is this a detriment, or a smart move on the filmmakers' parts? Truly you are seldom distracted from the story and dialogue, and you do get very drawn in.  But there are times when it would be nice to have something interesting to look at besides men in kilts. One great shot early on of Susannah York as Morag Sinclair, has her slip from shadows in to light as she spies from outside the proceedings of Jock's last night as C.O. party. What kind of a name is Morag, anyway? Did they play Scramble with Margo?

More often it is sound, not image that makes it's way into the proceedings as a director's device. When the guilt of what Sinclair has done to Barrows begins to unravel him, he hears a horrible whining hum in his ears. This guilt takes on a MacBethian touch when he begins to wash the blood off of his hands, and states that "it's not the body that worries me, it's the ghost". 

Later, when he is organizing the parade he will commission to honor Barrows, the Pipes he describes are heard hollowly in his head (and ours).
Ahh yes. The pipes. Those nasty, nasty instruments of whining, droning atonality.
My all-time favorite music joke goes like this:
Q: What's the difference between an onion and a bagpipe?
A: Nobody cries when you chop up a bagpipe.

If there is a drawback to the film, it is those damn pipes. Yes, it helps provide a sense of place and history. But really! Through the whole damn film? Enough!!! 


Guiness was at first offered the role of Colonel Barrows, which is not surprising, since you know he can play the nervous upper crust type so well. His slit-eyed, bellowing version of Sinclair is spot on...he's got the accent and demeanor down. Nobody disappears into a role like Sir Alec, unless it's maybe Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep.  I was wholly correct in thinking that his work in this film is the main reason to watch it. 
The choice to cast John Mills as Barrows was a bit off the beaten path. He usually played lower class types ( see my OSL on "The Rocking Horse Winner"). If not wholly believable as a man with an early version of PTSD, he is certainly true to the image of a high born scion of a military family. 

The supporting cast runs the gamut of brilliant to meh. On the brilliant side is Duncan Macrae as the Pipe Major. I find it difficult to explain what makes "Pipey" such a unique and memorable character. I am certain, that if you see the film, you will be in total agreement. Suffice to say that Macrae gives his role an excess of realism and humanity. Also exemplary, and for the same reasons,  is Gordon Jackson as Captain Cairns, the officer assigned to Colonel Barrows. Jackson later had a major role in Neames' most famous film, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". 

On the meh side, sadly, is Dennis Price as Sinclair's best friend and drinking buddy Charlie Scott. He plays the role without even a hint of Scottish accent, and this could be on purpose. He had always been cast as the privileged person he was, and this seems incongruous with the part. Regardless, he plays what is a pivotal role in the story with about as much emotion as a Buckingham Palace Guardsman. He does say the Brit upper crust familiarity "Old boy" about 200 times.

Susannah York's first feature role is also a bit underwhelming. This may not be her's not a terrible layered character, and she completely disappears from the proceedings after her father strikes her suitor. 


There are obviously critics who revere this film; it is in the Criterion Collection, after all. I don't hear it referred to as a highly respected and imitated Military film, but there are obvious influences on later movies, particularly "A Soldier's Story" and "A Few Good Men". It is wholly worth watching for the phenomenal work of Sir Alec Guiness, and the very real and continuing issues of PTSD and "Old Boy" favoritism. It is a fun watch, but maybe not as great as I remember. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭