Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Alec Guinness, John Mills, Dennis Price, Kay Walsh, Susannah York, John Fraser
Director: Ronald Neame
Audio: English monaural 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Trailer, interviews, essay
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 17, 2004

"You always think good of them, but there's none of them live up to you."

Film ***

Ronald Neame will not be a familiar name to many, but in British cinema, this cinematographer later-turned-director was somewhat of a Renaissance man.  At the start of his career, he was a director of photography and worked on several of David Lean's earliest films.  Later, Neame moved on to producer duties (and sometimes screenwriter duties as well), collaborating on such acknowledged David Lean classics as Brief Encounter and Great Expectations.  Neame's own directorial career did not begin until 1947 with Take My Life, but afterwards, it would encompass such recognizable films in the twilight of his career as The Odessa File, The Poseidon Adventure, and Scrooge (he even directed my favorite Hayley Mills film, The Chalk Garden!).

Tunes of Glory is a 1960 film which Neame adapted from a novel by James Kennaway, who also wrote the screenplay.  Despite the film's rather chipper title, it is not a musical but rather a dramatic film that uses regimental military life as allegory to the class hierarchy of traditional English society.  One of the film's best assets is a stellar cast that benefits from the presence of two of England's greatest actors - Alec Guinness and John Mills.

Guinness portrays Jock Sinclair, a whiskey-drinking, high-spirited major.  He is the current acting-colonel of a Scottish military battalion, and being lenient with regulations, unlike they would teach in online criminal justice programs, is fairly liked by his men.  However, as Tunes of Glory begins, a new replacement commander has arrived to take over control of the battalion.  He is Basil Barrow (John Mills), a stiff upper-lip and strictly by-the-books colonel.  The consequent clash of personalities and military methods between these two men provides the dramatic fire in the film's battle of wills.

Interestingly, Guinness was originally offered the role of Basil Barrow.  However, he felt that it was too similar to his Oscar-winning role from The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Instead, Guinness chose to play the character of Sinclair, whose boisterous personality was very much a polar opposite to his own nature in reality.  Nevertheless, Guinness, being a consummate method actor, delivered what is considered one of his finest performances.  Sporting red hair, a deep voice, and a Scottish accent, Guinness the actor simply disappears into his role, and the difference between his Major Sinclair and Bridge's Colonel Nicholson could not be more startling.

John Mills, of course, was no slouch in the acting department either.  Though he is probably best remembered today as father to the popular 1960's starlet Hayley Mills, his performance as the strict Colonel Barrow in Tunes of Glory is likewise one of his finest (and coincidentally one of his personal favorites, too).  For his performance, Mills received the best actor award from the Venice Film Festival.  It is not a surprise that Mills eventually won an Oscar of his own and, as with Guinness, was knighted by the Queen of England for excellence in the performing arts.

Tunes of Glory's supporting cast is also quite solid, being comprised of several of Britain's familiar character actors of the day.  Dennis Price plays Major Charles Scott, Sinclair's friend who later turns against him in the film.  Duncan Macrae steals his scenes as Pipe Major Duncan MacLean, and Kay Walsh is effective as actress Mary Titterington, Sinclair's long-suffering sweetheart.  Also in the cast is a young Susannah York (before she became a star) as Sinclair's daughter; her ill-advised romance with a soldier in the battalion will lead to the dire consequences which propel the film towards its powerful conclusion.

Tunes of Glory is set in the post-world war two era.  Sinclair, a boisterous soldier, dulls the current monotony of the peace with whiskey and spontaneous gigs for his fellow officers.  Barrow, however, is a rules-and-regulations man, and after assuming Sinclair's command, he sets about with his strict drills and dress codes.  Barrow finds fault in the men's loose adherence to the daily schedules.  He looks keenly for errors in Sinclair's previous paperwork.  He even frets upon how the officers conduct themselves socially in their free time.  Consequently, Barrow is given little regard by Sinclair, and Sinclair's estimate of the colonel is further diminished by Barrow's declaration, at their first encounter, that he prefers mild lemonade to whiskey.

Barrow is not really a bad man, of course.  We learn more of Barrow's character as the film progresses and begin to understand the influences of his background and breeding.  Sinclair might be considered a society man, whereas Barrow would be the man's man, someone whose own strength of character and self-determination, rather than family connections, has carried him to his current status in the military.  What both men hold in common are their proud and stubborn beliefs in their own values and personal principles.  That these values should inherently clash is a matter of propriety, which by normal accounts should be handled delicately behind closed doors.  Instead, in Tunes of Glory, these differences come to the forefront and dictate the very public actions of these men, not entirely to either's benefit by the conclusion of the film.

Although it is a drama, Tunes of Glory is not without its moments of levity.  There is a sequence (play for comic effect) in which Barrow orders his officers to undergo early morning dancing drills prior to a military benefit party.  The sight of grown soldiers, dressed in skirts (okay fine, kilts), twirling around with each other as partners, is pretty amusing.  In fact, viewers should quickly become accustomed to seeing soldiers in kilts (this film is about the Scottish military, after all).  And, a lot of the film's music is performed by bagpipes.  I might even suggest that, as a precaution, anyone seriously allergic to bagpipe music consider forgoing this film, although that would also mean missing out on some great performances as well.

Though John Mills provides a very fine, multi-layered performance as Colonel Barrow, the heart and soul of the film belongs to Alec Guinness.  His swaggering Major Sinclair may have many faults and even comes across as somewhat unlikable at times, but there is such an energy and forcefulness to Sinclair that we ultimately come to like this flawed, overbearing man.  His impassioned speech in defense of Barrow, of all people, at the film's conclusion shows a fortitude of character that overcomes whatever hindrance his own pride would normally impose upon him.

Sir Alec Guinness (somewhat to his chagrin) will probably always be remembered for playing a wise, old Jedi master.  Still, had he been able to sway the public's perception of him, he would have preferred to be properly embraced for what was his personal favorite of all his performances - that of Major Sinclair in Tunes of Glory.  It is a sentiment echoed by co-star John Mills as well.  With such talent on the film, it is no wonder that Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory has stood the test of time to remain us all of how truly great these actors were in their prime.

Video ** 1/2

Tunes of Glory is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format.  The high-definition transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive.  The film is in Technicolor, a rarity for British films of the time.  The print is in good condition although due to the age of the film, it is not quite pristine.  There is a grainy texture to the picture, otherwise it is generally clean of dust or debris.  There are some mild instances of density fluctuation in the intensity of the film but nothing significant.  Slightly more intrusive is a translucent, gray band that suddenly appears along the right side of the frame at the 1:30 mark; fortunately, it vanishes about eight minutes afterwards.

Audio ** 1/2

Tunes of Glory is presented with its original English 1.0 audio.  The track has been cleaned up, so it sounds fairly nice, albeit with an occasionally audible trace of buzz or distortion at higher frequencies.  Sound arises predominately from the center speaker, with 2-channel playback possible, if desired.  Despite some obvious limitations due to the monaural technology of the time, this audio track is decent enough.

Features ** 1/2

Tunes of Glory arrives from Criterion as a director-approved special edition DVD.  The company even acknowledges that the disc would not have been possible without Neame's generous participation.

A film trailer is available for Tunes of Glory on this DVD.  Of greater interest, however, are the new interviews created exclusively for this Criterion release.  First up is a 23-minute interview with director Ronald Neame.  He talks about the original novel and author Kennaway, some of the early pre-production work for the film (including a disastrous meeting with a disgruntled Scottish commander), his experiences with the actors, and much more.

Next, there is a new 14-minute audio interview with actor Sir John Mills.  Recorded in 2002, it is heard over a still photograph of the actor.  The interview is generally informative, although the interviewer tends to provide more facts about the film (or the actor) than does Mills, who seems content to follow the lead of the questions with simple, bemused responses.  Towards the end of the interview, Mills does offer several interesting tidbits about the actual production and his own acting method.  A word of caution, though - while listening to this audio interview, there are no options to fast-forward, reverse, or pause.  Furthermore, stopping the interview will send viewers back to the main menu, so it is best to listen to this interview from start to finish.

A third interview, a 15-minute archival clip from 1973, also appears on the disc.  It features Sir Alec Guinness in a rare TV interview for the BBC's Film Extra.  Guinness talks about his early acting days and some of his experiences on the David Lean films.  There is also a brief mention of Tunes of Glory near the end of the interview.

Lastly, the package insert contains an essay on the film by film historian Robert Murphy, author of British Cinema and the Second World War.  The essay offers a perspective on the film's place in British cinema as well as the similarities and differences between the film and the novel upon which it was based.


Tunes of Glory is a compelling and dramatic film with strong performances from two of Britain's finest actors - Alec Guinness and John Mills.  Movie fans interested in vintage British cinema will certainly want to give this Criterion disc a look.