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The Criterion Collection presents
"Whiskey for the gentlemen that like it, and for the gentlemen that don't like it... whiskey."
DVD ReviewTunes of Glory is probably the film Alec Guinness was thinking of when he said he regretted playing in Star Wars. He gives one of his best (and, reportedly, one of his favorite) performances as Jock Sinclair, a boorish drunkard commanding a peacetime battalion of Scottish soldiers in the years after World War II, and it's a shame to think such a layered, multi-faceted role would be overshadowed by a fairly minor part in a space opera that's really all about the special effects.
Sinclair is a self-proclaimed "up-by-the-bootstraps" officer who began as a piper (bagpipers played during marches and drills) and moved up in rank through his triumphs on the battlefield. He eventually was granted command of his own battalion, and he demands respect from his men, and gets it. In turn, he respects them—drinks with them, dances with them, and doesn't mind if the pipers are out of uniform during practice. But when Basil Barrow (John Mills), an upper class, by-the-book soldier who came to his rank by way of a military school, is assigned as his replacement, the two men become locked in a battle for control of both the battalion and the respect of the soldiers.
Ronald Neame, who had worked with Guinness in the past on Great Expectations with David Lean, directs a screenplay by James Kennaway, based on his novel. It's a difficult film to talk about, because so much of it is about mood, tone, and atmosphere, as nothing much strictly happens. We watch as Sinclair and Barrow undercut one another in dealing with troops, as Sinclair fights to maintain his control and Barrow tries to turn a group of largely untested soldiers into the perfect regiment. Their attitudes reveal their characters: Sinclair is brash, rude, and uneducated, and, it seems, he bristles at Barrows' intrusion not because he doesn't want to give up command, but because he wants to dominate the other man. Arrow, meanwhile, seems rather weak-willed and unhinged, and desires control over the troops as a way to control his own inner demons.
The wonderful supporting cast, including Susannah York as Sinclair's daughter and Dennis Price as Major Charles Scott, a cool, calculating officer who shows little respect for either Barrow or Sinclair, but Mills and Guinness are undoubtedly the stars of the show. Both of their characters are flawed, neither is very likeable. But both actors are able to make them, at the very least, understandable. It's hard to say which one is supposed to be the "hero." Though Guinness has more screen time, Sinclair's efforts to destroy another man undercut his star status, and the same is true for Mills—Barrow is a tragic, sad, and rather pathetic man.
Neame was the perfect director for this rather stage-y script. He is widely praised for stepping back and allowing his actors room to work. His camera is unobtrusive (something he talks about in the supplements), and his directorial choices are never obvious or distracting. He also made the decision to use music and sound effects to reveal the inner workings of his leads' tortured minds, but he does it sparingly, and for maximum effects. Kennaway's script is full of nuance and detail of the life of a member of a Scottish regiment. The soldier's daily routine provides a wonderful backdrop for the larger drama of the conflict between the two commanding officers, and the small character moments—as when Sinclair, who loves the drink, takes offense when Barrow won't accept an offer of whiskey (Sinclair counters with an offer for lemonade)—are all the richer for it.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: This is a decent restoration from Criterion, but not on par with their best. The colors look wonderful—the rich, warm hues are free of blooming or bleeding—and grain is natural and unobtrusive. Blacks are deep enough, and I spotted no digital anomalies. The only major problem is a large, dark line that covers a portion of the screen (and is surrounded by bands of discoloration) for about the last 15 minutes of the film. I realize it was probably too big a problem to fix, but it's very distracting.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track is all right, but it sounds rather constricted and harsh. The vocals are clear, but tend to sound over modulated when characters are shouting or speaking loudly. Which is to say nothing of the bagpipe music, which gets quite shrill at times (more so than bagpipes usually sound). There is a bit of audible hiss in the background, but no audible pops or crackles.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Sir John Mills' remembrances are presented in a new audio interview, and his comments are less worthwhile. The interviewer seems to get a bit flustered at times when Mills gives rather short, curt answers. Mills seems to have liked the film, but doesn't speak of it with any particular reverence. He seems rather indifferent, really, but maybe it's his age.
Finally, a vintage interview with Sir Alec Guinness, taken from the British BBC program Film Extra, doesn't focus specifically on Tunes of Glory, but is rather a series of musings about his young life and work he did at an advertising agency before he became an actor. It's interesting, and Guinness is a charming speaker, but I wish he'd actually spoken more about this role.
Also included is the trailer and a typically heady critical essay.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsNever mind that Tunes of Glory has a wonderfully literary, understated script; never mind Ronald Neame's focused, understated direction,; never mind the wonderful supporting cast or the refreshing Scottish milieu. It's worth watching on the strength of the lead performances alone. Sirs Alec Guinness and John Mills both turn potential caricatures into living, breathing characters, and a rather obtuse stage play into an engrossing character drama.
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