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Tunes of Glory: The Criterion Collection

Though he rose to prominence in the British film industry as David Lean's cinematographer, Ronald Neame's subsequent pictures as a director were hardly notable for their epic sweep or rich visual style. At his best, Neame was a technically proficient teller of tragic-comic tales, and he might've reached his career peak with the gracefully understated Tunes of Glory (1960), a classic battle of wills between two lifelong military men from wildly different backgrounds. Alec Guinness stars as the rowdy Jock Sinclair, a major who's probably seen his last promotion, coming up short of that desired colonel appointment. Sinclair is about to cede control of a Scottish army outpost to Lt. Col. Basil Barrow (John Mills), a literally born-to-the-manor commander who's returned to the base of his youth, where his legendary father made a name for himself. Barrow might have the cachet of legacy, but Sinclair has a firm grip on the loyalty of his charges, and rather than step aside, he elects to stay on as a second-in-command. Somewhat predictably, Barrow proves to be a stickler for punctuality and gentlemanly polish, going so far as to demand that the soldiers attend dance practice at the crack of dawn in preparation for a cocktail party where they will present themselves to the community. Such effete concerns irk the coarse, whisky-swilling Sinclair, who has no intentions of hewing to Barrow's privileged sense of social grace. Sinclair does everything he can to undermine Barrow's authority; thus, dividing the base into two fiercely opposed camps. But Sinclair has more to worry about than just Barrow; he's also got a beautiful young daughter (Susannah York) who's dating the battalion's best piper behind his back. When Sinclair strikes this young man after discovering the affair, Barrow is forced to consider bringing the beloved Major up on charges. With any other officer, there wouldn't be such deliberations, but Sinclair's popularity, and, conversely, Barrow's low standing with his men, gives the Colonel pause. Though Sinclair is clearly in the wrong, does Barrow dare risk losing the base by threatening a court martial? Until this point, Tunes of Glory is largely a good-natured snob-versus-slob tale, with both men eliciting sympathy thanks to James Kennaway's sensitive screenplay (based on his novel) and the central performances from Guinness and Mills. Guinness is, as expected, brilliant as the bullying Sinclair, disappearing beneath his bright orange mustache, and creating an immensely likable, and seemingly harmless, scoundrel. But the less-celebrated Mills is every bit his equal as Barrow, who slowly goes from being the piece's antagonist to its doomed hero. He comes on a bit strong at the beginning, but after a while it's clear that he's only trying to do his job. Meanwhile, Sinclair's conflict becomes more internal when he is forced to confront the idea of his daughter being courted by a soldier who's very much a young version of himself. The film's only weakness is that this promising subplot is all but abandoned in the final act, when the focus turns to the battle for the future of the base. This is forgivable, though, since the picture veers off in a decidedly unexpected, tone-shattering direction, resulting in a phenomenal monologue from Guinness that ranks among his finest on-screen moments. When an actor of his seemingly inexhaustible range manages to surprise, it's the stuff of pure cinematic bliss. Criterion presents Tunes of Glory in a mostly solid (save for some ruggedness in the final twenty minutes) anamorphic presentation (1.66:1) with so-so Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (dialogue is sometimes garbled, which forced the occasional use of subtitles by this viewer). Extras include an informative chat with the happily lucid 92-year-old Neame (23 min.), a brief audio discussion with Mills (he's not terribly chatty), and a vintage BBC interview with Guinness (15 min.). Also on board is the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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