Fans of Succession will appreciate this power struggle in a Scottish army regiment set in 1948. In a reverse of The Godfather (1972) where the Corleones complain about needing a “wartime consigliore,” here the powers-that-be have decided this unnamed distinctly Highlander company requires a commanding officer with skills more appropriate to peace time.
Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) has been in charge of the battalion since the North Africa campaign in World War Two when the original commander was killed. But he has never been promoted to full Lt. Col. Naturally, having been in charge for six years, he feels the job should be his. At a time when the currency of command was wartime experience he’s less than pleased when he loses out to Col. Barrow (John Mills) who spent most of the war as a Japanese POW.
It doesn’t help that they are complete opposites. Sinclair is a tough, hard-drinking, attention-seeking Scotsman who enlisted as an ordinary soldier and rose through the ranks winning two medals for courage during the conflict. Barrow is Oxford-educated English upper-class, a lecturer at Sandhurst Military Academy, and recalls his war experience with terror rather than the braggadocio of Sinclair. Worse, he doesn’t drink.
It doesn’t take long for the pair to clash. Sinclair, who has ruled as much by preying on weakness as force of personality, is quick to start to look for flaws in his opponent’s make-up. Barrow feels discipline has been slipping and enforces tougher measures. That might make him unpopular but an army is built on discipline so soldiers can hardly complain.
But Barrow slips up by misreading the men. He chooses the worst of all issues to make a stand. For the first post-war official barracks party, Barrow insists the soldiers embark on traditional Highland dancing in regulation fashion rather than in their normal exuberant, not to say rowdy, manner. The soldiers are infuriated when Barrow insists they take lessons.
He has just lit the fuse. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. Barrow is humiliated, Sinclair triumphant. But victory does not turn out the way Sinclair expected.
The main thrust of the narrative, as you might expect, is the stand-off between Sinclair and Barrow and the tensions felt all round, as would be the case in any business (Succession, now, of course the classic example) when a new boss takes control. While everyone might expect, and perhaps fear, change, in the military (as in the navy) there is always the danger, should the new broom try to sweep too clean, of mutiny.
This might not amount to a raising of arms. But there are other effective methods of mounting opposition – laxity, questioning or outright refusal to obey orders – or giving the new chief the cold shoulder. Here, in the background, are other simmering tensions. Not everyone is comfortable with Sinclair’s very laddish approach to command, the back-stabbing and double-dealing Major Charles Scott (Dennis Price) ready to pounce at any opportunity.
Sinclair is also having to deal with his daughter Morag (Susannah York) asserting her independence, having the temerity not just to take a boyfriend, Corporal Fraser (John Fraser), but one from the ranks rather than the officer class. And he feels the harsh tongue of his own paramour Mary (Kay Walsh).
Emotional isolation is rarely commented upon in matters of the armed forces and yet it is so much a driving force. If not adequately compensated by camaraderie, a man at the top can be very lonely indeed, and prone to the most vicious self-torment.
Director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) superbly invokes an army atmosphere away from the more usual battleground backdrop. The picture is anchored by brilliant performances all round and a roll-call of strong supporting characters. An unflinching look at power, especially leadership and the personal toll it takes. And it was astonishing that the movie could hit the target so well without relying on the usual round of sex, violence or that old stand-by the comic subordinate. It also probes the issues of what happens – in any industry – when the wrong person is put in charge. No less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock called it “one of the best films ever made.”
The sparring between Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1966), who won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for this role, is of the highest quality. Dennis Price (The Comedy Man, 1964) is the pick of the support while Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) makes an auspicious debut.
Few films could boast a better supporting cast: former British leading lady Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), Gordon Jackson (The Ipcress File, 1965), Duncan Macrae (Best of Enemies, 1961), John Fraser (Tamahine, 1963), Gerard Harper (Adam Adamant Lives!, 1966-1967, TV series) and Peter McEnery (The Moon-Spinners, 1964).
James Kennaway (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.