Tunes of Glory

Director: Ronald Neame
Screenplay: James Kennaway (based on his novel)
Stars: Alec Guinness (Maj. Jock Sinclair), John Mills (Lt. Col. Basil Barrow), Dennis Price (Maj. Charlie Scott, MC), Kay Walsh (Mary Titterington), John Fraser (Cpl. Piper Ian Fraser), Susannah York (Morag Sinclair), Gordon Jackson (Capt. Jimmy Cairns), Duncan Macrae (Pipe Maj. Duncan MacLean), Percy Herbert (RSM Riddick), Allan Cuthbertson (Capt. Eric Simpson), Paul Whitsun-Jones (Maj. Dusty Miller)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1960
Country: U.K.
Tunes of Glory
Alec Guinness and John Mills It had been just three years since Alec Guinness won the Oscar for his portrayal of the stern Col. Nicholson in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), so when he was approached to star in Tunes of Glory, based on James Kennaway’s novel about a power struggle between two officers in a peacetime Scottish battalion, it seemed like a no-brainer that Guinness would take the role of Lt. Col. Basil Barrow, the regimented, by-the-numbers character. However, Guinness, a consummate character actor who was never afraid to take risks, didn’t want to repeat a performance he had already given, so instead he opted to take the role of the hard-drinking, fun-loving Maj. Jock Sinclair, and it resulted in one of his most indelible roles (in a career that was filled with them).

There are several tensions in Tunes of Glory, all of which are manifested in the relationship between Sinclair and Barrow (John Mills), two middle-aged officers who are firmly set in their ways and refuse to budge. With his fiery red hair, love of whiskey, and genuine affection for the men in his battalion, Sinclair is the very opposite of the taciturn, strict Mills, who insists on conformity to even the most miniscule of regulations. Their approaches to leadership couldn’t be any more different, and when Mills is assigned to replace Sinclair as the commanding officer, it is obvious that sparks will fly.

Yet, what makes these two characters so memorable is the deeper currents that fuel their friction. One of these is the issue of class. Sinclair prides himself on the fact that he is a lifelong military man who worked his way up from being a piper to a commanding officer. Everything he has he earned the hard way, and he fundamentally believes that this makes him a better man. Barrow, on the other hand, came to the military through a position of social privilege. College-educated and schooled in the finer things in life, he finds Sinclair’s attitudes vulgar, while Sinclair refers to Barrow as a “wee gent,” reflecting his view that men of privilege are small in stature. Real men build themselves up, as he has.

While Sinclair is clearly the film’s protagonist, the character with whom we are asked to identify, director Ronald Neame (who directed Guinness in another of his great character performances in 1958’s The Horse’s Mouth) doesn’t make it easy for us. Sinclair is a complicated man, as honorable as he is full of bluster. At the same time, Barrow is not just a ramrod disciplinarian, but rather a man who finds order in his world by following the rules, just as Sinclair finds order in his by making his own. It is easy to demonize Barrow, but John Mills’ impressive performance secures a great deal of sympathy for him, even in his moments of infuriating rigidity.

Sinclair’s pride—often enflamed with the confidence-boosting power of booze—is both his strength and his weakness, and it carries over from his head-butting with Barrow to his strained relationship with his daughter, Morag (Susannah York), who is secretly seeing one of his men in his battalion. When he catches them together, he hits the young soldier, which is a serious military offense. This develops into an explosive situation when Barrow is faced with the decision of going against military stricture and dealing with Sinclair on his own, or following the rules and putting him up for a court-martial. The former choice means going against his by-the-rules nature, while the latter choice runs the risk of alienating him completely from the battalion, most of whom love Sinclair.

Neame, who is a thoroughly competent, but not particularly innovative director, finds subtle, but compelling ways to visualize this divide, particularly a scene near the end at the dinner table in which Sinclair laughs it up with a group of men at one end while Barrow sits alone at the other end, his hand increasingly tight around his glass while his face betrays not only his deeply wounded pride, but his loss of identity in Sinclair’s boisterous shadow. Even when he tries to get in on the conversation, he is quickly shut out; the men would rather hear a drunken song from Sinclair than Barrow’s amiable, but studiously boring advice on training for a pentathlon.

Despite having numerous comic moments, particularly in its depiction of Sinclair’s would-be romantic relationship with a wise-to-the-world actress (Kay Walsh), Tunes of Glory ultimately develops into a tragedy. The tragic turn of events may strike some as a bit forced, particularly as it goes against the rather light-hearted tone the film had been developing for its first two-thirds. Yet, the film manages to make it work because, rather than being an end in itself, the tragedy helps shed new light on Sinclair and Barrow, further deepening their already complex and fascinating characters. Tunes of Glory thus ends on a sad note because we see so clearly why their ambition-fueled battle could only lead to the destruction of both men.

Tunes of Glory Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsVideo interview with director Ronald Neame
Audio interview with actor John Mills
BBC television interview with actor Alec Guinness
Theatrical trailer
Essay by film historian Robert Murphy
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateFebruary 17, 2004

Tunes of Glory was originally released by Criterion on laser disc in a transfer that many found lacking. The age of the print used for that transfer was obvious, which reflects the general neglect this film has faced in the last few decades. However, Criterion has definitely made amends with the new, high-definition anamorphic transfer on this DVD. Created from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored, the image looks great. The film’s dark and muted color palette consisting largely of brown, blue, and gray is well-represented. The image has a slight graininess to it, which is in keeping with the film’s intended look and age. The only complaint is that there is a hazy black vertical line (much thicker than a hairline) along the lefthand side of the screen for about 10 minutes near the end of the film.

The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack has also been digitally restored and sounds good for its age. Most of the film is driven by dialogue, which is clean and clear (except for the thick Scottish accents, of course, which may require a few repeat viewings to grasp entirely).

The brief, but worthwhile list of supplements include a brand-new 23-minute video with director Ronald Neame, in which he discusses how he came to make Tunes of Glory and the film’s production (including funny little bits like how Alec Guinness and John Mills, who were both big stars at the time, flipped a coin to see who would get top billing). He also has some interesting things to say about the aesthetics of filmmaking and how he comes from a school in which “the camera doesn’t exist.” Also included is a 15-minute audio interview recorded in 2002 with John Mills and a 15-minute 1973 filmed interview with Alec Guinness from the BBC program Film Extra.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images Copyright © Janus Films

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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