Generous Orthodoxy  




Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Classic 1960 military movie and waterboarding

Tunes of Glory (1960) is available in a first-rate DVD from the admirable Criterion Collection. It is, first of all, catnip for lovers of all things Scottish and all things military.

But there is more. Alec Guinness plays against type as the boozing, brawling commander of a peacetime, postwar Scottish battalion--in his autobiography he said it was one of his all-time favorite roles and, indeed, it displays his depth and range as an actor more than any other film performances of his that I can think of (not that I ever saw him on stage, alas. My parents saw him in the premiere of T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party--imagine!)

The story concerns two military men with antithetical personalities and styles. Both are essentially decent, both have enormous flaws, and they destroy each other. It is an enactment of the tragedy of unredeemed human nature.

But who remembers that it featured waterboarding? The John Mills character, Colonel Basil Barrow, who is brought in to command the battalion, has a breakdown at a dance party (love that Scottish dancing!) that the battalion is giving for the local community. He recalls being waterboarded by the Japanese during World War II. This dialogue ensues:

Lt. Col. Basil Barrow: When you're dying, when you really believe you're dying, you think of the most absurd things.
Capt. Jimmy Cairns, M.C.: In my war I never had time to think.
Lt. Col. Basil Barrow: Oh they gave me time, all right. Again and again. When I was in the prison camp, they nearly drowned me, then they brought me round. Then they put a wet cloth over my mouth and kept it wet until I nearly drowned again. And the only thing that pulled me through was the thought that one day I'd come back and sit in the middle of that table as colonel of this battalion, like my grandfather and his father before him.

When this movie was made, this was not the sort of thing that American audiences would have ever thought would come up as part of our domestic policy. Alas....