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Tunes of Glory

Tunes of Glory
Criterion 225
1960 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 106 min. / Street Date February 17, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Alec Guinness, John Mills, Dennis Price, Kay Walsh, John Fraser, Susannah York, Gordon Jackson, Duncan Macrae, Percy Herbert, Allan Cuthbertson
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Production Designer Wilfred Shingleton
Film Editor Anne V. Coates
Original Music Malcolm Arnold
Written by James Kennaway from his novel
Produced by Albert Fennell, Colin Lesslie
Directed by Ronald Neame

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Dealing with fine points of leadership and politics in the Army, Tunes of Glory isn't the kind of movie subject that appeals to film critics, and it was mostly passed over in 1960. But it remains one of the finest films ever about the pressures of popularity and authority in any organization, and contains what might be Alec Guinness' finest performance. His Jock Sinclair goes against every 'type' the chameleon ever played, a bluff, thick-headed, nervy man whose enthusiasm for his traditional military life is matched by a complete insensitivity to officers without his particular background or experience.


Scottish Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) reliquishes command of his Battalion to the new Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills) but stubbornly demeans and ignores his new commander's orders and wishes, effectively keeping the high-strung new officer from forming any bond with his men. Barrow's response is to be more firm, which only increases Jock's determination to humiliate him. A battalion social with the locals becomes a disaster when Jock pushes Barrow too far. But it looks like Barrow gets the upper hand when Jock loses control as well, striking a piper (Ian Fraser) for secretly dating his daughter Morag Sinclair (Susannah York). It's an offense which could end Jock's military career. Jock should be the one on the hotseat, but Barrow wants to be lenient ... a decision that might be a big mistake.

Tunes of Glory definitely starts off as Alec Guinness' film, but John Mills also shows how great acting works. In the quiet and introverted part, Mills is every bit as compelling as Guinness and communicates his varied states of inner turmoil simply by embodying it in his manner and actions.

The great strength of James Kennaway's story and screen treatment is the way it boldly displays both sides of the conflict, while abstaining from making final judgments. Jock is a loutish braggart and bully but is beloved by his men for the sincerity of his convictions. He's fair in his way, even as he demands they obey his orders to a tee. Commanders are not supposed to be so buddy-buddy with their men, frequently drinking and carrying on together, but Jock makes it work to a degree. He does seem to be blind to the fact that regulations are slack and that his whisky pal Major Charlie Scott (Dennis Price) doesn't share his unbridled camaraderie. Jock's command may seem jolly from the outside, but it's really his own little fiefdom where everyone must do things his way - drink whiskey or else, for one thing.

Quiet and reserved, Mills' Colonel Barrow nevertheless wants to make the Battalion his own. He's got to shake things up to do it, but is stymied when Jock directly blocks his authority. Shielded by his example, Jock's cronies among the officers are all too ready to defy Barrow in small points of conduct - talking behind his back, showing disdain in their attitudes. Unfortunately, Barrow doesn't have Jock's unlimited confidence. He's as sensitive about his elitist Army career as Jock is willing to demean it. Jock is able to defy and embarass Barrow, while making it seem Barrow's fault. And Barrow too easily falls into Jock's traps, creating public scenes that diminish his stature among his men.

The sophistication comes in the finer points. Neither man can change their essential natures. Jock seems a sensitive enough fellow when he knows he's done wrong, but has no real respect for the rights of others. Barrow has some hidden scars that cause him too much anguish, and he doesn't handle adversity well. It may be that he needs too much to be loved by his men, a flaw he shares with Jock.

Curiously, the possible best choice for command is Dennis Price's cold-fish Major Scott. He keeps his feelings inside and maintains a constant decorum that trumps both Jock's and Barrow's transparent emotions. The other officers range from insolently 'loyal' to quietly fair (Allan Cuthbertson's captain) but they externalize their personal reactions. Scott seems sinister because he doesn't show the weakness that his peers do; even when Scott recommends a court-martial, Jock knows the major is no turncoat. The Army life is hearty and embraces rough traditions, including, it seems, tragedy in the ranks when personal issues come to the fore.

The picture of military life presented in Tunes of Glory makes an interesting comparison with John Ford's sentimental cavalry pictures. They have similar traditions and petty conflicts such as the problems that come up when a soldier dates the commander's daughter, but Ford always posits a basically harmonious army society. The drama of warfare makes facing personal problems and conflicts unnecessary. Death or denial effectively solve most grievances. Tunes of Glory is about the practical calamities of command, not about the building of a 'grand' society.

Tunes of Glory has little action but doesn't seem like a filmed play; the clammy-cold castle sets (the dawn dance scene is a chiller) are excellent, as are the production values. The pre-60s color is handsomely used to pinpoint moods and atmospheres - the darkness outside the barracks, the grey skies over the parade ground.

Guinness and Mills are backed up by a terrific group of actors, each given a complex personality to play. Kay Walsh is sympathetic as Jock's sometime-girlfriend. John Fraser and Susannah York are a fine young couple; it's York's first film and she positively shines. Duncan Macrae and Gordon Jackson are particularly interesting as a fair-minded piper and Barrow's helpful adjutant. Down the list further are the notable Percy Herbert Mysterious Island and the diminuitve Angus Lennie of The Great Escape. Andrew Kier is said to be in there somewhere; we didn't spot him.

Criterion's DVD of Tunes of Glory really rescues this deserving picture. The brightness of the enhanced transfer brings out the richness in the photgraphy - and the added detail keeps Guinness' shock of red hair from looking as it does on normal television, like an orange lobster sitting on his head. The transfer is nigh-perfect until a four-minute patch near the end when a dark green soft vertical bar invades the frame on the far right. It's clearly some un-fixable source damage and doesn't harm the presentation to any serious degree. The audio is generally good. I used the English subs now and again to access bits of hard-to-understand Scots dialogue, but not because the track was bad.

Criterion's extras include interviews with its three major creatives. Director Neame is seen in a pleasant LA interview talking lucidly about the entire project as if he filmed it just yesterday. John Mills has an audio-only talk that's polite but less illuminating. An English television interview with Alec Guinness pulled up from 1973 is a great one that covers the beginning of his career before singling out his work on Tunes of Glory. Guinness in uncharacteristically open with his answers ... it must have been a good day.

Robert Murphy's perceptive liner essay is a plus. The original trailer is a feeble mess that tries to sell the show as a rollicking, spirited story of Army life using Guinness' Bridge on the River Kwai association. Who wants to see a rollicking, spirited story of Army life, then or now? It appears to be an American trailer. It lists Lopert as the distributor, perhaps indicating that UA released Tunes of Glory only on the Art-film circuit.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tunes of Glory rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: video interview with director Ronald Neame, audio interview with Sir John Mills, 1973 BBC interview with Sir Alec Guinness, essay by critic and historian Robert Murphy, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 16, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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