Tunes of Glory (1960): Ronald Neame’s Superb British Military Drama, Starring Alec Guinness and John Mills in Top Form

Ronald Neame directed Tunes of Glory, a well-acted British military drama, based on the 1956 novel and screenplay by James Kennaway.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Tunes of Glory
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theatrical poster

Unfolding as a darkly psychological morality drama, the tale focuses on events in a wintry Scottish Highland regimental barracks, right after the Second World War.

It stars Alec Guinness and John Mills, who render excellent performances by embodying two opposite types of military officers, who inevitably clash in times of crisis.

The terrific ensemble features Dennis Price, Kay Walsh, John Fraser, Duncan MacRae, Gordon Jackson and Susannah York (in her screen debut).

Writer Kennaway served with the Gordon Highlanders, and the title refers to the bagpiping that accompanies important action of the regiment.

The original pipe music was composed by Malcolm Arnold, who also wrote the music for The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Hitchcock called Tunes of Glory “one of the best films ever made,” but, curiously, the film rarely finds a place in the established canon of great British films.

The film came too late to be part of the spate of popular 1950s British war films, and was too dark to be part of that genre. He notes that it seemed “slightly old-fashioned” when compared to British New Wave films that came out at the time, such as Room at the Top.

Set in 1948, the film opens in an officers’ mess of an unnamed Highland Regiment, soon after his daughter Morag (York) arrives on post.

Acting Lieutenant Colonel Jock Sinclair (Guinness) announces this will be his last day as commanding officer. The hard-drinking Sinclair, who is still gazetted as a major despite being in command since the battalion’s last full colonel was killed in action during the North African campaign of the Second World War, is to be replaced by the rigid lieutenant colonel, Basil Barrow (Mills).

Although Sinclair led the battalion through the remainder of the war, winning a DSO and MM during El Alamein, Monte Cassino and “from Dover to Berlin,”,Brigade HQ considers Barrow a more appropriate peacetime commanding officer. A drunken Sinclair reveals his frustrations at his lowly rank: “I’ve acted Colonel, I should be Colonel, and by God… I will be Colonel!”

Colonel Barrow observes with great distress the battalion’s officers dancing rowdily, including Major Sinclair.

Barrow and Sinclair icily swap their military backgrounds. Sinclair joined the regiment as an enlisted bandsman in Glasgow and rose through the ranks, winning the Military Medal and Distinguished Service Order during the war. Barrow by contrast came to the regiment from Eton then Oxford University, and that his ancestors were colonels of the regiment before him – although Barrow served only a year with the regiment back in 1933

He has been 15 years away from the battalion. When Sinclair humorously recounts he was briefly in Barlinnie Prison for being drunk and disorderly (also in 1933), Barrow reticently mentions his experience as a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp.

Sinclair dismissively assumes Barrow received preferential treatment as an officer (“officers’ privileges and amateur dramatics”) but in fact Barrow is deeply psychologically scarred after being tortured by the Japanese, which he does not tell Sinclair who not-so-privately resents his replacement by a “stupid wee man”.

Barrow passes several orders designed to instill discipline in the battalion that Sinclair had allowed to slip. Particularly controversial is an order that all officers take lessons in Highland dancing in an effort to make their customary rowdy style more formal and suitable for mixed company.

However the unchanged energetic dancing of the officers, led by a drunken Sinclair at Barrow’s first cocktail party with the townspeople, incites his anger. Barrow’s outburst only further damages his own authority.

Major Sinclair publicly assaults the uniformed piper he discovers with his daughter in a pub – “bashing a corporal” as he put it. Barrow decides an official report to the Brigade must be made, meaning an imminent court-martial, even though he is aware the action will further erode his popularity and authority within the battalion.

Barrow is eventually persuaded to back down by Sinclair, promising to support him in the future (“We’d make a good team.”). The decision further undermines his authority, as Sinclair’s promised support never materializes, and the other officers, notably Captain Alec Rattray (Richard Leech), treat him with a renewed lack of respect. The second in command, Major Charlie Scott, with glacial cruelty, implies that it is Sinclair who is really running the battalion, because he forced Barrow to dismiss the charges against him. Alienated now from both Sinclair’s clique and the officers who formerly supported him, from the officers recreation area a shot is heard and investigation confirms that Barrow has shot himself dead (the actual event is unseen).

With the colonel’s death, Sinclair realizes it’s his fault. He thereupon announces plans for a grandiose funeral fit for a field marshal, complete with a march through the town in which all the “tunes of glory” will be played by the pipers. He lists the tunes he wishes to be played: “Scotland the Brave,” “The Nut Brown Maiden,” and “The Bonnets of

The plans are disproportionate to the circumstances, given the manner of the colonel’s death, Sinclair insists that it was not suicide but murder. He claims that he was the murderer and the other senior officers were his accomplices (with the exception of the colonel’s adjutant).

Suffering a nervous breakdown, Sinclair is escorted from the barracks while the officers salute him as he passes by.

Director Ronald Neame had previously worked with Guinness on The Horse’s Mouth (1958), and he also joined forces again with actress Kay Walsh (David Lean’s ex-wife), cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson, and editor Anne V. Coates.

The film offers an engaging, if old-fashioned, narrative, helped considerably by Neame’s direction crisp and vigorous helming.  The acting of the two leads, especially John Mills, is superb.

Oscar Context:

James Kennaway, who adapted the screenplay from his novel, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost to Elmer Gantry (penned by director Richard Brooks).

It also received numerous BAFTA nominations, including Best Film, Best British Film, Best British Screenplay and Best Actor nominations for both Guinness and Mills.

Critical Status:

The film served as the official British entry at the 1960 Venice Film Fest, where John Mills won the Best Actor award.  That same year the film was named “Best Foreign Film” by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Tunes of Glory was adapted for BBC Radio 4’s Monday Play by B.C. Cummins in 1976, then adapted for the stage by Michael Lunney, who directed a production of it which toured Britain in 2006.

Tunes of Glory was released on Blu-ray by Criterion in December 2019 with a 4K digital restoration.

Tunes of Glory was preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2018.

Alec Guinness as Major Jock Sinclair, DSO, MM
John Mills as Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow
Dennis Price as Major Charles Scott, MC & Bar
Kay Walsh as Mary Titterington
John Fraser as Corporal Piper Ian Fraser
Susannah York as Morag Sinclair
Gordon Jackson as Captain Jimmy Cairns, MC
Duncan MacRae as Pipe Major Maclean
Percy Herbert as Regimental Sergeant Major Riddick
Allan Cuthbertson as Captain Eric Simpson
Paul Whitsun-Jones as Major ‘Dusty’ Miller
Gerald Harper as Major Hugo MacMillan
Richard Leech as Captain Alec Rattray
Peter McEnery as 2nd Lieutenant David MacKinnon
Keith Faulkner as Corporal Piper Adam
Angus Lennie as Orderly Room Clerk
John Harvey as Sergeant Finney
Andrew Keir as Lance Corporal Campbell
Jameson Clark as Sir Alan
Lockwood West as Provost


Directed by Ronald Neame
Produced by Colin Lesslie
Screenplay by James Kennaway, based on Tunes of Glory 1956 novel by James Kennaway
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Edited by Anne V. Coates

Production company: Knightsbridge Films

Distributed by United Artists; Lopert Pictures (US)

Release date: September 4, 1960 (Venice Film Fest)

Running time: 106 minutes