Criterion // 1960 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 16th, 2004
"Whisky for the gentlemen that like it. And for the gentlemen that don't
like it -- Whisky."
-- Major Jock Sinclair
Its plaintive wail cascades across the shrouded castles of the highlands and down through the dew-kissed heather of the lowlands. Its pulsating pitch can charge an entire brigade into battle with as much passion and power as it evokes when asked to praise those who have fallen in the skirmish. There is a dignity and an honor in the precision and fingering, a ghostly aura of the long forgotten reborn in the bellow and brashness of its cry. Though many consider it to be the most abrasive and difficult of sounds to enjoy, the bagpipe is perhaps the most emotive of all the musical instruments. Like the voice of a Tibetan Gyuto monk, able to produce up to three notes simultaneously, the bass drone and cadence of the chanter can conjure up many contradictory feelings, expressions that invoke their own sense of melancholy, joy, or peaceful sorrow. For the player, there is no prouder moment than to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of your band mates, pipes ablaze, and promenade down the middle of the town square. When they stand at the precipice of a battlefield playing the troops to their potential destiny, there is a true sense of grandeur and importance that transcends the possibility of death. It's as if God himself is scoring the soundtrack for man's aggressive nature. And nothing sounds more like the trail of a tear, or a family moaning in sorrow, than the sad strains of a hymn as filtered through the bellows.
For Major Jock Sinclair, the pipers and their pipes are the backbone, the nutrition, the very essence of the Scottish army. As his brothers in arms, he views the morale and the traditions of the corps as second to everything else, including family and self. But when Lt. Col. Basil Barrow steps in, after several years out of commission, a new kind of combat zone is created, one formulated in frustrated dreams and the false impression of respect. It's a new kind of combat for these old soldiers. The winner may indeed take all. But as the woeful shriek of the bellowing banshee plays the victory march, it is hard to say if it is playing another delicate dirge, or one of the many Tunes of Glory.
For all intents and purposes, Major Jock Sinclair has been the commanding officer of the Highlands regiment since his promotion during WWII. Now, several years after the war, another man is replacing him, Lt. Col. Basil Barrow. Jock is not happy with being passed over for promotion by a college-educated "officer" type. He decides to make Col. Barrow's life a living hell. From the moment the new leader steps on the grounds of their castle keep, Jock is defiant and devious. He undermines orders and flaunts the loyalty of his men in front of Barrow. The new commander tries to assert his authority and attempts to countermand Sinclair. Thus a battle of wills and wants is set up with each man trying their best to supercede the other. But each man also carries personal demons within himself that makes waging such an interpersonal battle all the more difficult.
Jock is a womanizing drunkard who loves whisky more than the local actress he has been leading on all these years. He also has a grown daughter who secretly sees the regiment's best bagpipe player on the side (completely against her father's wishes, of course). Barrow on the other hand, is haunted by memories of his time as a POW and cannot understand why he is not instantly respected and obeyed. He seems too sensitive to the statements and confrontation of others. When Jock discovers his daughter with the piper, a skirmish ensues and an official inquest is called. But the resolution of this minor matter affects everyone in ways that radically change them, the dynamic of power, and the carefully protected traditions of the Highland Regiment forever.
Life in the military is its own private universe of pecking orders and rank, rituals and personality clashes. From the very nature of its setup, with advancement and politics acting as the necessary networking to "be all you can be," it's only natural that feelings will be hurt, individuals overlooked, and hard work ignored in favor of fraternity and brotherhood. Ripe with dramatic possibilities, the confrontations of career men in the pursuit of their country's security have provided the foundation for dozens of classic theatrical and cinematic celebrations. FromThe Caine Mutiny and Mr. Roberts to Breaker Morant and A Few Good Men, how those in power respond to those without and how said supremacy is used has made for marvelous, macho grandstanding. It's interesting, then, to note how Tunes of Glory is hardly ever mentioned along with the other classic armed forces films. Perhaps it's because it was not well received when it was released in 1960. Possibly the incredibly Scottish storyline, dripping with broad brogues and umpteen bottles of whisky made for a far too insular slice of life. Or maybe it was because, only 15 years after WWII and with Korea a fresher memory in everyone's head, this tale of how battle, bureaucracy, and bluster can warp and wound even the strongest soldiers serving their country was too aggressive and painful to consider. There is no doubt about it: Tunes of Glory is a great film. But its vastness is not measured in heroics and traditions. Instead, this is a movie about how human foibles can defeat even the most war torn veteran.
This is really an allegory, the tale of a people's king being deposed by the rightful, if frightfully rigid, ruler of the realm. Tunes of Glory wants to explore the idea of camaraderie and command, whether the troops should be ruled by someone who understands them (and indeed, was once one of them) or by someone who has earned the proper placement credits to secure the job. It's about dreams shattered and unfortunately answered. It deconstructs masculinity as it praises compassion and sensitivity. If anything, Tunes of Glory wants to argue that, out of the ashes of world war, with its atrocities and hate, a new kind of man can emerge: one who is damaged and not afraid to show it. Both Jock Sinclair, our bloke's bloke, and Basil Barrow, the uptight pretender to the throne, have been injured in battle without actually sustaining a scar. Sinclair wears his pain in an obvious, anti-social fashion. Placed in command after almost everyone else in his platoon was wiped out, he has stepped in to serve and has never once received the respect he feels he deserves. Never once recognizing the "right time, right place" aspect of his authority, everything is an affront to his sensibilities. This leads him to drink too much and dote over his adult daughter with whom he barely interacts (not that he has much of a family life, really). Barrow, however, keeps his pain buried deep inside, hoping that it will eventually dissipate. He came to the Highland regiment to fulfill a lifelong desire and maintain a familial legacy. Inside his mind are a myriad of reminders of torture and torment inside a prisoner-of-war camp. But even with the flaming flashbacks in full force, he strives for the stiff upper lip that so many British men pride themselves on.
Tradition is very important in Tunes of Glory, much more than any other thematic concept. Jock's connection to the men and the officers is born out of his respect for the institution and heritage they belong to. Having started out as a piper himself, Jock loves to languish in the tunes of glory, the marches and reels of the standard Scottish songbook. For him, being one of the boys is about boozing and backslaps, the non-erotic male bonding that creates lasting bonds just perfect for the blood-soaked trenches of warfare. You need to know who your brother is when the bullets are flying and the mortars are blasting. Jock believes whole-heartedly that he knows who's on his side. He may be right (and he may discover he's been wrong all along), but the idea of fostering such friendships is at the heart of military service. It's customary of this institutionalized life. Barrow is also motivated by tradition, but his is based in a totally different ideal. All of his male relatives served in the Highland regiment, many also leading it. For him, even after all his service to King and country, to lead this corps will be the accomplishment of a lifelong objective. He needs to lead this group and is not afraid to make enemies, step on toes or undermine morale to get what he wants. For him, soldiering is about the social, as well as the security, graces. He expects his officers to act like gentlemen and cannot tolerate those who do not. For him, failure to perform as a cultured chap undermines respect, both for him and for the regiment. This brave façade standard will eventually be his undoing, but he will never tarnish tradition to reward those who do.
A great deal of this dichotomy between the would-be leaders of the regiment sounds like a power struggle, and, indeed, many consider Tunes of Glory to be one of the ultimate tales of clout in clash, of the fight between a broad-shouldered bully who feels he's served into the right to lead and the well-positioned, educated officer who has actually earned the rank. But in reality, this is not a movie about supremacy at all. Mary, the saucy actress whom Sinclair fancies, has the word for it, one that Jock himself gave her: resilience. Tunes of Glory is indeed more a movie of hardness and toughness rather than power. Neither Barrows nor Sinclair has any real authority among the regiment. Jock has let others usurp or avoid responsibility for the sake of keeping the crew happy. He is a figurehead, the hard-drinking leader who gives the gang what they want in exchange for loyalty and service. Barrows uses his by-the-book barking to try to get the troops' attention. But his pronouncements seem petty and merely meant to implement his self-considered control. If either man really tried to exercise true leadership, like making radical changes among the ranks or ordering a charge into battle, one can easily envision the men refusing, finding neither man has the respect or power necessary to mandate they sacrifice their career...or life. So both officers must be resilient. They must persevere and remain intact in order to win the commander's crown. As with any war of wits, it's not always the smart one who wins, but he who is able to withstand the most glancing blows without falling over. As the ending of Tunes of Glory indicates, one was made of much stronger, better-preserved material than the other.
Tunes of Glory is also a movie that wishes to discuss the blinkered nature of military life. Both Burrows and Sinclair have managed to make shambles of their personal lives, ending up lonely men in the service of their country because they really have no other "family" they can relate to other than the citizenry and the corps. As usual, Jock's missteps are more obvious. He is overprotective of his daughter for all the reasons a tough-talking, barroom-brawling father can be. No, it is not because he is really unable to express his emotions. It is because he is deathly afraid that she will marry someone like him. When he sees her with one of the regiment's young, brash pipers, the bleary-eyed look on his face is one of disappointment rather than anger. Sure, he lashes out violently, but his true feelings are more confused. Though he puts on a façade of bravado and machismo, he is a man teetering on the brink of discovery: namely, of how vulnerable and vile he really is. Barrow, on the other hand, has buried himself so deep in the ancestral strives of those who served before him that a current relationship is simply out of the question. He hints that he was married once, but dismisses the union as a "mistake." Nothing can countermand his desire to lead the Highlanders. And yet there are memories, specters from the past that dig at his psyche in a way that explains and yet never really excuses Barrow's obsessive nature. Certainly his experiences as a POW (which he hints at once with harrowing results) have cost him his personal life. But the regiment still secures his legacy (how interesting it is that neither Jock the tough nor Barrow the tender has a son to carry on the name...the tradition of their own individuality), and, in the end, that is all that is important.
But the fact that both of our main characters end up abandoned, alone, and afraid (both pragmatically and metaphysically) means that there is no real winner or loser in this battle of wits. There are those who will find this ambiguity in the film a little disassociating. Heroes and villains are always necessary in a war, but Tunes of Glory fails to fashion either of its leads into black hats or white. Both are flawed, and both are valiant. Each walks the path from the battlefield to the gutter to the road to redemption in his own unique (and, in one case, self-destructive) manner. Indeed, one can argue that the true evil presence in the piece, the tainted turncoat who deceives and destroys both the incoming and outgoing leader is Major Scott (played with refined Noel-Coward-ice by Brit great Dennis Price). He is a brandy-drinking dandy who always seems to be on the outskirts of the scene: observing, listening, scheming. Unlike the rest of the officers, wrapped up in their commitments and concerns, Scott appears to be perfecting his skills, both as a billiards player (with its complicated angles and strict requirements) and as a meddler. He plays both Sinclair and Barrow expertly, working from the inside out to charm, challenge, and chagrin both men. When they realized that they've been licked, the shock is that it was the doing of this sideline slick, a supposed neutral fellow "officer," not some manipulative plan by their chief rival. Sure, he seems to suggest that it is the entire regiment that he speaks for, but the truth is far more sinister. He wants the command. But we never fully understand this, and that is why he becomes such a cold and callous scoundrel. He is willing to destroy other men, or at least give them the fodder to do so themselves, and yet he merely stands to the side, a drink in his hand, the slightest smirk on his face, and no obvious explanation for his actions.
Tunes of Glory would never work without actors willing to open themselves up to such ridicule, criticism, and caricature for the sake of finding the complete truth within their parts. In the leads, Sir John Mills and Sir Alec Guinness are simply superb, each playing against type to create compelling, three-dimensional men of (dis)honor. Mills has the more difficult part here. He is playing terrier to Guinness' Scottish bulldog, and he must exude authority without resorting to histrionics. His command is built on a tightrope of mixed emotions, a powder keg ready to explode at the slightest suggestion of disrespect. In a scene toward the end, after he's made a fateful decision about Sinclair, he sits at the head of the officer's table, forgotten by everyone seated as they drink and joke with Jock. His slow, subtle realization that he has finally been made the fool, that he has lost control of the one thing he has always wanted, is acting at its most intense and artful. It's easy to champion Guinness' work here. He is barrel-chested and boisterous, the "say wot" kind of man's man that everyone feels affection for, but no one ever gets too close to. Thinking of him in such refined moments of muted madness as The Ladykillers or Kind Hearts and Coronets doesn't begin to prepare you for the dimensions of hard-drinking, tough-living loutishness he creates. Larger than life is not a fitting description for Jock Sinclair. He's more of a magical military amalgamation, the combination of every aspect of service, good or bad, bound together with dirt, sweat, drink, blood, and duty. Many consider this to be Guinness' finest hour on film, and it's hard to disagree. He gets so lost playing the sly scourge with a shock tower of red hair that he completely disappears in the role. But Mills is equally elusive, and, together, they give Tunes of Glory its sad, shallow heart.
But this is also a well-crafted movie, filled with good, old-fashioned ideas about narrative complexity, the subtle use of set design in storytelling, and the necessity for authenticity and accuracy. Perhaps it's better to label Ronald Neame's spectacular direction as really an example of perfect misdirection. He lets scenes continue on or occur outside the visual range of the audience. He uses sonic cues and sudden bursts of noise (laughter, yelling, the blast of a gun) to suggest and confirm the nature of the story. We are not meant to see everything that happens here: some of the military's most daunting secrets are better left unknown. Working from a beloved novel by James Kennaway (who used his memories of serving in the Argyles Regiment as the basis for his book and screenplay adaptation), Neame also employs the entire set, from the front to the back to the distant corners and the varying elevations, to make his points. He is not afraid to have his actors facing away from the camera or moving past the compositional center of the shot to accentuate the feeling of unease. His blocking is as important as his framing. When Barrow comes to a drunken Sinclair to declare a kind of wit-war truce, Guinness is kept as the anchor in the shot, always down camera right in the scene. Barrow surrounds and hounds him, trying to find an inroad with this broken bulk of an officer. As he moves and parries, Sinclair is always in the same place. Neame knows how to use all aspects of the cinema, from light to dark, silence, and chaos, to prove his point. It is one of the most near-perfect jobs of performance direction and atmosphere creation in British cinema. And it is a telling reason that Tunes of Glory has remained a terrific, timeless film.
With its customary dances, gorgeous musical score, and the attention to detail about both personal and military life, Tunes of Glory is a masterpiece of interpersonal squabbling, an inside examination of the most closed off of societies. But there is more to this movie than matching marchers, petulant personalities, and a battle for control over a battalion. This is a movie about what it's like to be a man, and to be considered brave and strong. No one would argue that Jock Sinclair is a macho guy. He pounds the booze as he pulls the birds and never once questions the importance of standing up for himself and his men. But he is not strong. He is not unbreakable. Barrow, on the other hand, has survived more horrendous situations, ones that flash back to his torture in a POW camp, than Sinclair can even imagine. He sees himself as a daunting taskmaster, a stickler for details and a regulation-oriented officer demanding respect. But he too is weak. He cannot control his petty jealousy or his raging insecurity. Both are willing to manipulate the other for the sake of their own desires. And in the end, neither wins. Each is destroyed by how he has treated the other, how he let the other get under his skin and destroy what made him one of the lads to begin with. The "tunes of glory" are traditional marches played to celebrate the dignity and reputation of those who fight or who have fought. Sinclair and Barrow both probably feel they deserve such a rousing revelry. But what they really merit is pity. They've missed the point of the military altogether: service and duty, command and respect. All they have is their stubborn bullheaded desire to one-up each other. And it doesn't get them very far. And that renders them unfit for leadership.
There are very few guarantees in this world that are actually worth paying attention to, but when you see the name Criterion on a release, it is a safe bet that the film inside will indeed be a classic of its genre and will have the best digital transfer and treatment possible. Tunes of Glory definitely lives up to this reputation, both in the image and sound department. Visually, the movie is spectacular, filled with all manner of visual artistry and spectacular color. Presented in an anamorphic 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which preserves Neame's impressive compositions, the picture is sharp and sensational. There is, however, one minor misfortune that keeps this DVD from getting a full 100 on the image scale. Four minutes from the ending, a green/brown band appears near the edge of the screen. It is a foggy, fuzzy line that runs from the top of the frame to the bottom. It remains for almost the entire rest of the film, disappearing just before the final officer's meeting. It is annoying, but it also must have been unavoidable. Many of the movies Criterion collects are not in the best of shape from a complete clean working print position. They sometimes have to scour the planet and make do with any possible source for a transfer that they find. What they have here is impressive, but purists may piss and moan about the flaw. It should not keep anyone from enjoying (or purchasing) this fine film.
On the sound side, Dolby Digital Mono is not known for its atmosphere, but Neame experimented with the aural aspects of the film and they do create an ambiance of foreboding and sadness, all of which Criterion preserves perfectly. As this film is filled with Scottish accents and cultural slang, some may want to turn on the subtitles to get the most out of what is being said. And the extras here offer their own special rewards. Neame, Guinness, and Mills are separately interviewed (two specifically for the disc; Guinness' Q&A comes from a 1973 TV program), and each has interesting insights to offer. Of the three, Guinness' is the least film specific. He mentions that he actually pursued this film project, making it only the second time ever in his career that he went after a role (Fagin in Oliver Twist was the first). Still, it is nice to hear about this enigmatic actor's youth and training. Mills is fairly old by now (he turned 96 in February), but he has a good memory and offers some interesting takes on the characters and the acting process. He sometimes avoids the question asked, resorting to a doddering-old-codger mode to avoid criticism or a failing recall. But in this audio-only discussion, you can sense the pride he has in his performance and this film. Neame is actually shown speaking to the camera, and his is the best featurette of all. Filled with spoilers (indeed, both Mills and Neame give away huge chunks of plot, so watch these features after you've seen the film, please) he walks us through the decision to make the film, his connection to both Mills and Guinness, and how he struggled to find the proper military location in which to set the story. He is very proud of Tunes of Glory and expresses some personal disappointment that it didn't do better at the box office (he opines that people looking for Bridge Over the River Kwai II got a jolt seeing Oscar-winner Guinness as the loutish Jock).
Just the most minor of complaints: because Neame is still alive as of the writing of this review, it would have been nice to give him a commentary track. His interview featurette offers many excellent anecdotes about the film, and it would be nice to see him comment on the individual moments onscreen as they play out. He has had a wonderful career as a filmmaker, directing such standouts as The Poseidon Adventure, Hopscotch, and The Odessa File. Hearing him reminisce a little and perhaps discuss these other films would have been a real treat. Criterion missed a golden opportunity here. And perhaps Neame didn't want to sit for a full-length narrative feature. But if he had agreed, it would have made the presentation of Tunes of Glory that much more special.
Ceremony implies honor, and honor implies an adherence to traditions. But both Jock Sinclair and Basil Barrow don't feel like honorable men, even with their devout belief in heritage and standards. Both want to warp the past to play a role in their present path to glory. Each sees legacy in a different light: one forges his as part of the family lineage; the other lets actions and solidarity do the talking. As military men then, they do seem to meet the minimum requirements of duty and pride. But honor is another story completely. If anything, they are more men of shame than nobility. Both have let a hunger for power pervert their calling, and each has held on to his personal pettiness, overlooking all other aspects of military service or real life. When the lonely bagpipe finally plays a somber song for either entity, its wraithlike warble filling the air with all manner of mixed emotions, it will not be a celebration. The Tunes of Glory are reserved for those who've proven their worth, not just as officers and gentlemen, but as human beings as well. Jock Sinclair and Basil Barrow are not men for anyone but themselves. The lonely howl of piper will speak louder and stronger than any bully tactic or commander's order. At one time in their life, both men may have deserved the tribute of the regiment in full regalia playing them "back home." But, instead of understanding tradition, they tried to reinvent it to fit their own idealism. Sometimes, there is nothing more pathetic or melancholic than the melody the piper plays, except when it accurately characterizes those for whom it is being played.
Tunes of Glory is found innocent of all charges and is free to go. Criterion is also acquitted on charges that the DVD image here is less than acceptable. The minor mar in the last four minutes does not discount the otherwise exceptional transfer presented.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer(s)
* New Video Interview with Director Ronald Neame
* Exclusive New Audio Interview with Actor Sir John Mills
* BBC Interview with Sir Alec Guinness
* New Essay by Acclaimed Film Critic and Historian Robert Murphy