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One winter night at a regiment headquarters in the Scottish highlands, temporary commander Major Jock Sinclair orders his pipers to play and his men to join him in drinking. An up-from-the-ranks officer, Jock led the regiment in World War II and has earned their affection despite his crudeness and penchant for whiskey. After Cpl. Piper Ian Fraser finishes entertaining the rowdy, drunken crowd, he secretly meets his girl friend, Jock's daughter Morag, who wants to conceal their relationship from her father because she believes he is not prepared to accept her involvement with a member of his regiment. As Morag leaves the barracks, older Pipe Major Maclean cautions Morag that Jock will be outraged if he finds her at the barracks. Back in the mess room, Jock announces that tomorrow he will be replaced by Lt. Col. Basil Barrow, an Oxford educated officer and descendant of several of the regiment's previous commanding officers. As the night wears on, Jock and his men are raucously celebrating with whiskey and dance when Basil, who is not expected until the next morning, suddenly arrives and surprises them. Jock introduces Basil to the men and learns from the new commander that he had been a prisoner of war, like himself, during World War II. Late that night, Jock drunkenly complains to his close friend, second-in-command Major Charles Scott, about his replacement, who had only a desk job before his new assignment. Soon after, Jock comes across Fraser and, in jest, asks whether or not his "intentions are honorable" with his girl, not realizing that he is asking about Morag. Shocked, Fraser merely mumbles "yes" and tells him most of the men will always think of him as the commander. The next morning, Jock sternly reminds Morag that his rules about staying away from the barracks are to protect her, prompting her to rebuke him for spending time with his actress friend, Mary. Later, Jock tours the barracks with Basil, who is obsessed with promptness and preserving the regiment's traditions, correcting the men about their attire and insisting that even the smallest infraction be reported. While some men, like R.S.M. Riddick, believe Basil is bringing civility to the barracks, more experienced officers like Maclean think Basil and the men who support him are snobs. Later, Basil announces that in preparation for a regiment cocktail party, all men, including officers, are to report for early morning dance lessons to improve their "noisy ritual." When Jock offers his services to Basil, the commander humiliates him by complaining that facility changes have not been duly noted on regiment charts and reminding him to attend the dance lessons. One night, Jock complains to Mary about the new colonel and attempts to lure her into a night of lovemaking, but Mary, ambivalent about Jock's self-pity and drunkenness, demurs. At the first dance lesson, Basil further humiliates Jock when he demands that he follow his subordinate Maclean, who is leading the men. Weeks later at the cocktail party, the men are graciously hosting the townsmen and women, until a drunken Jock goads his men into heavy drinking and unruly dancing. When Basil witnesses a young woman fall to the ground as the party's volume increases, he explodes in anger and orders the party to cease, stunning the visitors. Embarrassed by his own outburst, Basil flees in his jeep while his concerned assistant, Capt. Jimmy Cairns, jumps in beside him. After recklessly speeding for miles, Basil finally stops, admits his loneliness and recounts that, as a prisoner of war, the only thing that kept him alive was the thought that he would someday return and take control of the same battalion his father and grandfather once commanded. Meanwhile, when Jock unexpectedly finds Fraser and Morag talking intimately at a pub, he hits the young corporal in a fit of fatherly rage, an appalling breach of military law. Wanting to commiserate, Jock goes to Mary's to confess his outburst, but finds Charlie sharing a late-night drink with her. The next day, Basil wrestles with his choices, either to handle the problem internally or to request a formal inquiry that will more than likely lead to a court martial. Although Fraser has not filed a complaint, Charlie, who would like the command for himself, convinces Basil to opt for a formal inquiry, knowing the men will turn on him as a result. Later, Mary reports Charlie's betrayal to the disheveled Jock and rouses him to return to the barracks. Once there, Jock mocks Charlie for his useless sophistication and then brazenly asks the men to dine with him. As Basil looks on, the men join Jock in the mess hall as a sign of allegiance. Later, Maclean forces the priggish Riddick to report the non-commissioned officers' request that Basil reconsider the inquiry. Although Basil insists that Riddick continue collecting evidence, he begins to doubt his decision and searches for Jock, who is sleeping off his drunkenness on a barracks' cot. When Jock questions Basil's devotion to the regiment, Basil proudly states that he was born into the regiment, but Jock casts doubts on his priorities by reminding him that the inquiry would hurt the regiment's reputation. After Basil reluctantly agrees to give him a second chance and leaves the room, Jock chuckles that Basil is a "toy soldier." As Jock engages the men in boisterous drunken reveling at dinner that evening, Jimmy tries to include Basil in the conversation, but when the men fail to acknowledge him, an anxious Basil seeks solace with Charlie, who insinuates that Basil was easily duped by Jock. Humiliated by Charlie's trite sarcasm, Basil goes to the tub room and shoots himself. Although Jock orders a young officer to look directly at the dead man's face, insisting that a soldier must "handle both the living and the dead," he is shaken by haunting memories of his time as a POW. Later in a regiment meeting, Jock outlines an elaborate funeral ceremony, asking for the best piper, but his thoughts are interrupted by hallucinations of wartime pipes and drums. Despite Charlie and Jimmy's attempts to encourage him to have a simple private ceremony for the suicide victim, Jock yells out that they were all accomplices in Basil's murder and paces the front of the room deliriously muttering to himself. Realizing they are witnessing their commander's breakdown, his men quietly leave the hall, while Jimmy and Charlie escort the now weeping man to his jeep to protect him from scrutiny.