Though the idea is hardly anything new, a recent cycle of "manliness" has been making the rounds in American advertising and the popular culture it informs. It's mostly a farcical campaign, urging guys to "man up!" and poking fun at wimpy behaviors that deserve the pejorative "unmanly." While the trend has provoked a slight backlash from feminists who openly wonder about the motives behind "men's-only" soft drinks and a return to the juvenile mockery of calling a group of sluggish men "ladies," the misogynous bluster behind these gags is pretty easily neutered on close examination. What passes as manly in these ads is a thin appeal to the underlying neuroses and gender-role confusion that most 21st century men in this society have yet to adequately resolve, though many of us have settled into some kind of arrangement that works for ourselves and those with whom we spend our time. Re-watching Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory this past week got me thinking that the film is as good a place as any to start engaging with the topic of what it means to be a man, especially a man moving through middle age, and better than most. (The upcoming Criterion release of 12 Angry Men will make for a good follow-up.)
Set in the magnificent barracks of a Scottish military regiment, Tunes of Glory is a relic of an unadulterated man's world the likes of which I suspect scarcely exists in Western society anymore. Though the irony of labeling this film as hyper-masculine is obvious enough, as I recall the many scenes of frolicsome dancing involving men wearing kilts and tassled stockings, that tag sticks firmly and seems all the more fitting the deeper one digs into the conflicts, rivalries, camaraderie and competitive jostling for position among the men centrally involved in its plot. The high testosterone content doesn't manifest itself in adrenaline-pumping action scenes, brutal violence, sexual exploits or self-sacrificing bravery either - all of which are characteristics commonly associated with male-oriented entertainment. Rather, the essential reason I see Tunes of Glory as so emblematic of the problems and impulses that motivate men to behave as we do is based on its sociological observations. It's a profound meditation on the peculiar but unmistakable rites of endurance that men set up for each other, and the damnable difficulties we have in negotiating those hazards gracefully as we deal with life's inevitable changes.
The story involves two men who find themselves vying to be the alpha male in a highly formalized, even fetishistic environment - a military battalion in the Scottish Highlands, in the winter following the end of World War II, where the danger of actually going into combat has now diminished, with the survivors' jobs now consisting of endless parade drills and the maintenance of strict discipline as numerous rituals are acted out on schedule for the benefit of the soldiers and local townspeople alike. With the martial chain of command established and the pressures of keeping the unit cohesive constantly pressing in, human nature demands some kind of release, and the men, as Tunes of Glory begins, find their natural outlet in Major Jock Sinclair, a garrulous hard drinking man who's risen from the common ranks of piper to command his regiment. He's secured their loyalty to work diligently under his authority during the day by allowing them to cut loose in late nights of drinking and carousing, and his feisty manners encourage the more boisterous among them to reinforce that tone within their peer group.
But Jock's rowdy steerage of the outpost is coming to an end as we learn early on that he's to be succeeded in command by Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow, a straight-laced, by-the-books type who appears to be something of an aristocrat appointed by headquarters to move in and whip the rambunctious outpost into shape. That's clearly Sinclair's take on the situation, and even as he goes about following orders, he refuses to passively submit to the new commander, especially as the colonel's firm insistence on detail and protocol calls Jock's free-wheeling approach to leadership into question. As it turns out, Barrow has a history of involvement with this regiment and has not enjoyed nearly the degree of comfort and privilege in his background that his fastidious habits seem to suggest. Indeed, he goes on to reveal (inadvertently, not as an excuse for any of the difficulties that subsequently ensued), that he'd been water-boarded while incarcerated as a prisoner of war. This untreated trauma and its psychological effects wind up having a tragic, dramatic effect in several ways, as Barrow struggles to cope with his own failure to impose the high standards of order and conformity he considers to be his duty. His lack of familiarity with just about all of the men he's assigned to lead creates intractable tensions, as well as opportunities for mischief and manipulation by the enigmatic Major Scott, a key figure who never aligns himself with either Sinclair or Barrow, but instead seems intent on maintaining adequate distance from and impartiality toward everyone around him in order to pursue his vaguely malevolent but undeclared agenda. There always seems to be a trouble maker like him around in just about any situation where competitions for power and control develop, throwing little twists of chaos so subtly into the mix.
The clash between the hot-tempered Jock (played with startling fluency and power by Alec Guinness) and Col. Barrow (in a more constrained but equally intense performance from John Mills) fuels Tunes of Glory through its central development, but the plot is loaded with numerous sidebars depicting memorable secondary characters interacting with the two protagonists and each other, each casting their own light on the disruptions that the main conflict triggers. Besides Maj. Scott mentioned above, we have examples of determined fidelity (Eric, Dusty and Hugo, younger men that stand with Jock through his ups and downs, whom he affectionately called "my babies"), his pretty teenage daughter Moirag (Susannah York, in her film debut) and her piper boyfriend Corporal Fraser (suspected and forbidden by the over-protective father, who knows exactly what kind of a rascal he was when he was a piper of the same age.) Rounding out the company, we get acquainted with a crew of delightfully wise and authentic Scotsmen, impressing us as convincingly realized characters who also manage to capture specific archetypal traits of how men boxed in by customs and regulations ingeniously and instinctively calculate their response to the demands of conflicting authorities above them.
The clip below provides a vivid example of how these manly men had to adapt to new orders that contradicted not only the rules established by Barrow's predecessors but also the practices they'd been comfortable and familiar with all throughout their lives. Though Tunes of Glory isn't commonly regarded as a "dance film," dance certainly plays an important part in it, particularly this scene. Barrow has instructed the men that their steps and movements need to take on a more genteel quality, and in order to assure that the necessary changes will be made, he's instituted compulsory practice sessions beginning early each morning. The fruits of their labor are to be revealed at a social gala thrown by the regiment to which the local citizens are invited. But largely due to Jock's insubordinate influence, the men's conduct falls short of Barrow's ideals. The colonel's response to that disappointment is one of several emotionally shattering scenes in this film - it gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.
Barrow's meltdown at the casual mutiny of the men who disregard his orders and allow themselves too much fun signals the first of several tipping points that both he and Sinclair have to endure, and from which neither will fully recover. Sinclair's first crisis is a blow-up triggered by his possessive rage when he discovers his daughter chatting discreetly at a local bar with her boyfriend, well after the hour she should have been nestled at home. Jock barges in, begins reading his daughter the riot act, and when Corp. Fraser tries to intervene in defense of his sweetheart, he takes an elbow to the jaw from the enraged father in response. Problem is, Fraser is a uniformed soldier, and Jock's violation of protocol gets him in serious trouble. He knows that this is the kind of thing that could ruin his career, and he has no solid defense to excuse himself. All that he can do is turn for a bit of solace to Mary (always charming Kay Walsh), a stage actress capable of holding her own in a battle of will and wits with Jock. But she's in the midst of entertaining another guest, his erstwhile friend, now rival, Major Scott - and so Jock finds himself truly alone, loveless and on the verge of becoming useless in this world. It's a crappy place for a middle aged guy to find himself, and yet so often so many of us do!
Jock's last resort is to rely on the unpredictable and altogether undeserved mercy of Barrow, whose discretion can determine exactly how the case against Major Sinclair is resolved, either by dropping the charge and dealing with it "in house" or reporting the violation to upper command and sealing his ruin. Barrow has a lot riding on the decision himself, as the ripple effects of whatever he chooses to do will have incalculable ramifications on the men who will be prone to seeing him as either too lenient and indulgent, or ruthlessly harsh, in dealing with a misbehaving, high-ranking officer.
The subtle but incisive verbal jousting that establishes this predicament creates an intricate series of maneuvers that unfold from scene to scene making Barrow's final decision, and its immediate aftermath, quite a marvel to behold. It's a vexing dilemma, the outlines of which will be quickly familiar to anyone who's ever had to make painful decisions balancing risks to both one's personal reputation and people you deeply care about.
And without spelling out the end altogether, I'll just let it be said that both Barrow and Sinclair wind up snapping badly under the pressure. Each of them had, for their own respective reasons, staked themselves to one of the classic manly attitudes and approaches to life. For Basil Barrow, it was the authoritative, no-nonsense, stickler for the rules demand for complete control, and a willingness to impose severe penalties upon those who challenged his standards - ultimately condemning himself when he fell short of his own mark. For Jock Sinclair, he took the path of the hell-raiser, the gregarious good-time chappie who openly mocked the weak and effeminate (the "unmanly," as today's adverts would put it), burned callously through his relationships with women and suppressed his emotional maturity through a steady flow of whisky in and brash exuberance out without ever getting a steady grip on the inner demons that propelled him so recklessly through life. I asked my wife if the lesson from Tunes of Glory is that men are inevitably destined to go insane at the end of it all. She replied that it's just evidence that having too many men cooped up in one place without enough sensible women around to keep them grounded is bound to wind up badly. Whatever effect my passivity has on my manliness rankings, I can't really argue with that!