The Criterion Completist – Tunes of Glory (1960)
written by: James Kennaway (novel & screenplay)
produced by: Colin Lesslie
directed by: Ronald Neame
runtime: 106 min.
U. S. release date: December 20, 1960
DVD/Blu-ray: February 17, 2004
Peacetime problems are the focus of the 1960 military drama “Tunes of Glory“, based on the book of the same name by James Kennaway. This film explores the world of the upper class of Scottish military culture, and asks: What are soldiers and officers to do with themselves when there are no wars to fight?
Sir Alec Guinness plays Col. Jock Sinclair, a hard-drinking, fun-loving commanding officer of a peacetime battalion located in a castle high up in the Scottish Highlands. His men adore him, and he and his fellow officers host boisterous dinner parties, swapping war stories over whisky and cigars. This easy, comfortable existence is quickly disrupted with arrival of new officer Col. Basil Barrow (John Mills), a strict, straight-laced officer whose insistence on strict military discipline immediately causes ripples throughout the battalion. Most of the ensuing film centers around the epic battle of wills between the two men, not only for control over the battalion, but for the hearts, minds and loyalty of the soldiers themselves. And after a violent altercation in a pub between Jock and a fellow officer, the battle lines become more clearly drawn between the two men, leading to a tragic and unexpected outcome.
Now what sets “Tunes of Glory” apart from countless other fight-the-power type films is the excellent and complex characterization of the two clashing colonels. Jock would appear to be the good ol’ boy that everyone loves, but his drunkenness gives him somewhat of a pathetic, hangdog quality that turns off his fellow officers, and even his own daughter Morag (played by Susannah York, in her film debut). Same with Col. Barrow, a character written with much more depth and nuance than you typically see from these movies. Even though Barrow is easy to hate, he shows great vulnerability in his eagerness to be popular with the men, and by the end of the film, has become the more sympathetic character of the two leads.
Shot almost entirely indoors, and in long, unedited takes, “Tunes of Glory” takes on an almost theatrical quality, in the grand British tradition. The acting of Alec Guinness and John Mills is simply superb, and with many dialogue-heavy scenes, the film becomes a showcase for their talents. In an extra on the Criterion release, director Ronald Neame explains that he wanted the camera to be “invisible”, and wanted to make as few movements as possible so as to focus directly on the characters. The supporting cast is excellent throughout, and the interior sets of the castle are rich with the details of Scottish military life.
“Tunes of Glory” is an excellent, if over-looked, military drama filled with amazing performances, and shows us that the battles of men can continue long after the guns have gone silent.
The single disc Criterion release is relatively light on extras, though the enhanced widescreen digital transfer is flawless. The aforementioned interview with Neame is a nice overview of the film, and has some good behind-the-scenes tidbits (including how they had to teach the British actors how to sit in a kilt!). An essay on the film by critic Robert Murphy can be read on Criterion’s website. Currently available to rent or download on iTunes, and streaming instantly on Hulu Plus.
Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL. Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992. He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.