One of the all-time great British films, Tunes of Glory (1960) is also the best directed by Ronald Neame, whose remarkable career spans nearly the entire history of British cinema. Neame, who will be 93 on April 23rd, began his career as an assistant cameraman on such films as Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929), later shooting such seminal films as In Which We Serve (1942) and Blithe Spirit (1945). He co-produced and co-adapted David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), and began directing himself the following year. In this capacity Neame has made a wide range of excellent films -- comedies like The Horse's Mouth (1958), searing character portraits such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (his next-best film, 1969), musicals and the best disaster film ever (The Poseidon Adventure, 1971).
Neither cutting-edge nor flashy, Tunes of Glory has unfairly been delegated to second-tier status among British masterpieces. Made at the height of Britian's Free Cinema movement, and unwisely advertised as a follow-up (of sorts) to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Tunes of Glory was an anomaly and not the success it should have been.
The film is set at an unnamed Highland regiment, where its gregarious, popular acting commander, Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) is replaced with a martinet, a humorless teetotaler, Lt. Colonel Barrow (John Mills). The Oxford-educated Barrow, who places discipline ahead of tradition, clashes with his officers almost at once. Sinclair, lacking a formal education, earned his commission the hard way, and the men of the battalion see him as one of their own.
The film is like two pendulums part of the same mechanism, but swinging in opposite directions. Audiences are initially sympathetic to Sinclair, taking an instant dislike to Barrow. As the battalion's officers begin taking sides and Sinclair unpleasantly and openly defies Barrow to the point of nervous collapse, the two pendulums swing and by the end of the picture their roles are almost reversed. James Kennaway's screenplay (from his semi-autobiographical novel) does a superb job of shading each character, adding a remarkable verisimilitude to regiment life down to the most minor of characters. Though filmed mostly at Shepperton Studios, Wilfred Shingleton's production design likewise feels authentic, with roaring fireplaces, comfortable leather chairs, and heavy wood paneling.
Much has been made of the fact that Guinness and Mills play characters that the other actor would seem better suited. Guinness, quiet and famously introvert off-camera would seem better cast in the Barrow part, while Mills, known for playing working class heroes and foot soldiers, would seem ideal as Sinclair. One contemporary reviewer even suggested Guinness and Mills alternate the roles onstage -- a wonderful, sadly unrealized concept. In any case, both are excellent. Guinness, with the flashier part, is larger-than-life because that's what the character calls for, though his best scenes are quiet little moments of manipulation, dissing his commander within his earshot. (Spoiler) Guinness's best scene has him quietly compelling a young soldier (Peter McEnery) to look at a bloody corpse straight on, an unexpected moment in which Sinclair's leadership instinctively kicks into gear.
But Mills is at least the equal of the more actorly Guinness. His eyes are amazingly expressive, quietly sizing up his men in early scenes, fruitlessly searching for someone to toss him a lifeline later on. His gradual, tragic meltdown is especially unnerving to watch.
Both actors are so good it's easy to forget Tunes of Glory's supporting cast. They give one of the finest ensemble performances in British cinema (perhaps equaled only by the cast of the Lean-Neame Great Expectations). Nineteen-year-old Susannah York (making her screen debut) and John Fraser are fine as Sinclair's daughter and bagpiper boyfriend, but the real treat is seeing Scotsmen like Gordon Jackson, Duncan Macrae, and Angus Lennie in unusually substantial roles. (Andrew Kier is in there somewhere, too.) Kennaway's script carefully avoids turning the regiment into an anti-Barrow mob -- each officer has his own reasons for siding with one or the other. Some, like Jackson's adjutant, are quietly appalled by the cruelty of Sinclair's behavior. Allan Cuthbertson's Simpson is sympathetic to Barrow, but unwilling to sacrifice his relationship with the others, while Percy Herbert's RSM Riddick is driven by pure emotion. Third-billed Dennis Price plays the kind of oily character he seemed to specialize, but even his character has an admirable ambiguity about it.
Video & Audio
Criterion has done a fine job with Tunes of Glory, though the source material has one glaring flaw, which isn't mentioned anywhere in their "About the Transfer" notes. The entire last reel, beginning at about the 1:31 mark, has a curious, very distracting defect, a dark vertical line, almost like a shadow, which appears quite prominently on the far right side of the frame. I don't recall ever seeing this before, in any of the four or five other times I've seen the film, both in home video versions and in 35mm. Otherwise, the image looks quite sharp, with good color and a mono soundtrack representative of the period. Optional English subtitles are included.
Extras include a 23-minute Ronald Neame Interview, in 16:9 anamorphic format, and videotaped at the director's home. Neame offers a nice overview of the film, pointedly noting that his own style is, at its best, unobtrusive and even invisible. Further, he gently suggests movies would be better if we were to move away from the current in-your-face, Michael Bay style. (Hear! Hear!) A Conversation with Sir John Mills is an audio-only interview with the actor. It's rather disappointing, for while the interviewer works mightily to pry answers loose from Mills, he's just not forthcoming. Better is a 1973 BBC television Interview with Sir Alec Guinness, which goes into some depth on the actor's early years, as well as his film career prior to Tunes of Glory. A ridiculous American trailer is presented in 16:9 format, narrated by (I think) Les Tremayne, who badly feigns a Scottish accent and whose narration sells the film as some sort of lusty epic.
Low-key but absolutely riveting, Tunes of Glory is a sublimely subtle tale of two men who survived the horrors of war only to become unglued by peacetime vanity. For its superb cast and excellent direction, this is a title not to be missed.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.