Ronald Neame’s Tunes of Glory (1960), which was widely admired when it was first released, has subsequently kept a low profile. This says more about critical attitudes and British film culture than it does about the quality of the movie. Made in color when most British films were still made in black and white (one reviewer complained of being distracted by Alec Guinness’s “marmalade” mustache), concerned with the affairs of an exclusive Scottish military caste at a time when British cinema was beginning to investigate the unexplored hinterland of working-class life, it seemed to fit into no tradition, no genre, and thus became unjustly neglected. However, it is this film’s uniqueness that makes it all the more fascinating.
Like contemporaneous realist films such as Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Tunes of Glory is based closely on a popular first novel. James Kennaway—Scottish, upper-middle-class, an officer in the Cameron Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders before going to Trinity College, Oxford—had a very different background from those of working-class writers like John Braine and Alan Sillitoe. However, in Tunes of Glory, the concise, powerful novel he published in 1956, Kennaway is equally obsessed with class, and his protagonist, Jock Sinclair (middle-aged though he may be), is no less a working-class hero than the likes of Joe Lampton, Arthur Seaton, and the other “angry young men.”
Nevertheless, Kennaway’s novel was not an obvious choice for a commercial film (indeed it was rejected by Kenneth Tynan in his capacity as script adviser at Ealing Studios because he thought there was too much “army worship”). British audiences were used to the rituals of life in the army, navy, and Royal Air Force from the innumerable Second World War films of the fifties, but there those tropes were tied in with exciting action. A film about two cantankerous, middle-aged colonels disputing control of a Highland battalion in a snowy Scottish town might have been considered to have less popular appeal. Michael Powell’s almost contemporaneous The Queen’s Guards, which has a conflict between a disabled Guards officer and his son at its heart, sank without a trace at the box office, despite its lavish footage of the Trooping the Colour ceremony performed on the queen’s official birthday. Ronald Neame sought a different solution, making things work by recruiting the two best British actors of their generation to play the colonels and casting them against type. Alec Guinness, stickler for discipline in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), plays up-from-the-ranks maverick Sinclair, and John Mills, whose best-known uniform role was Ordinary Seaman Shorty Blake in Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942), appears as Barrow, the ultimate in stiff-upper-lip rectitude.
With two actors of such stature starring in the film, there was a need to even out their parts. In Kennaway’s novel, Jock Sinclair is presented as bullying, wily, selfish, and coarse; but he is undoubtedly the hero. Barrow, the “spry wee gent” who supersedes him, is treated with considerable sensitivity and attracts our sympathy, but he is never allowed to emerge from Jock’s shadow. Kennaway’s script for the film simplifies but also intensifies the action of the novel. The omission of certain scenes—most especially that where Jock plays the pipes, and that where young MacKinnon discovers him on a fog-shrouded bridge dressed in full regalia—makes Jock more of an egocentric monster and less a fallible but likable human being. Kennaway also introduces a new plot twist that raises the stakes between the two men. In the novel, both men remain locked into their uncompromising positions to the end. In the film, they both appear to compromise. But it is the unreality of that compromise that leads to tragedy, and what is lost in subtlety is made up for in emotional intensity. A fascinating study of conflict and survival centered upon a war hero ill-adjusted to the needs of peacetime society and resentful of an unjust class system becomes the tragedy of two men whose fierce pride and ambition force them inexorably toward madness and death.
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