Tunes of Glory: Ranks Divided

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.

Ronald Neame had first come to prominence as a cinematographer (shooting, among many other films, In Which We Serve). He made the transition to directing in 1947 with the atmospheric thriller Take My Life, going on to make several notable films in the fifties, including a clever, convincing Second World War film, The Man Who Never Was (1956), and, immediately preceding Tunes of Glory, The Horse’s Mouth (1958), with Alec Guinness displaying his virtuosity as the artist Gulley Jimson. 

A modest and conscientious craftsman rather than a flamboyant auteur, Neame has a simple, unobtrusive style that conceals an impressive ability to handle complex narratives clearly and plainly, and to present us with characters who are idiosyncratic, multidimensional, and a continuous challenge to our preconceptions. In Tunes of Glory, he displays his best qualities, carefully balancing our sympathies between the two main characters and, through his judicious control of pacing and tempo, letting tension build to a moving and convincing climax. He wisely resists the temptation to “open out” the action with flashbacks to the war, maintaining the claustrophobic feel of Kennaway’s novel. Unusually for a cinematographer turned director, Neame has an ability to invoke remarkable performances from his actors, and in Tunes of Glory he is well served by his excellently chosen cast. Susannah York’s Morag is less formidable than the laconic Scottish maiden of the novel, but in the role of Jock’s daughter the actor radiates the vitality that would soon make her a star. Kay Walsh, in her brief scenes as Mary Titterington, a member of the local theater troupe who is also Jock’s sometime mistress, sheds light not only on her own character but Jock’s as well. Dennis Price, Gordon Jackson, and Allan Cuthbertson play out their usual roles with their usual aplomb, and Duncan Macrae does more than justice to sweet-voiced Pipe Major Maclean. 

Inevitably, the film stands or falls on the performances of Mills and Guinness. It was Mills who won the prize for best actor at the Venice Film Festival that year, and one can understand why. A character who could have been a neurotic bore, and one we would have been glad to see the back of, grows in our affections as Mills gradually reveals the vulnerable man within the stiff military dummy. In retrospect, though, Guinness has the more difficult task. In the novel, it is apparent enough that Jock’s arrogant toast—“Whiskey, for the gentlemen who like it. And for the gentlemen who don’t like it, whiskey”—is a drunkard’s boast. Kennaway captures superbly the flamboyance, the cunning, and the manipulation of the habitual heavy drinker. But the on-screen portrayal of such a man can easily degenerate into caricature. Guinness—who rightly regarded his representation of Jock Sinclair as one of his best performances—makes his character sway between being dangerous and being pathetic so that we, like Barrow, never quite know what to make of him.

In his 2003 autobiography, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, Ronald Neame tells us that “of all my films, Tunes of Glory is the one I care about most. Looking at it today, I find the performances and the production not dated in any way. It is a story that will always have something to say to each generation—a satisfying and rewarding experience.” It is a sentiment that I suspect most viewers of the film would endorse.


This piece was originally written for the Criterion Collection in 2003.