Most people today know Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episodes IV, V, and VI of the "Star Wars" saga. However, the actor detested his "Star Wars" experience and sometimes made remarks that amounted to his wishing that "Star Wars" fans would leave him alone. In fact, having Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan Kenobi in "A New Hope"--one of the most poignant moments in the series--was his idea. He just didn't want to have to work with George Lucas any more than a bare minimum.
Guinness had a distinguished career besides (or despite?) his involvement in "Star Wars". Director David Lean used Guinness in several classics, including "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia", and "Doctor Zhivago". Guinness also headlined several of the famed "Ealing comedies" (dark, distinctively British comedies released by Ealing Studios).
Guinness was held in such high esteem by members of the British film industry that he was often given first choice in picking or rejecting roles. In 1960, he appeared in a movie that examined Britan's post-WWII military culture. As with so many British movies, class issues are also raised.
In "Tunes of Glory", Guinness plays Jock Sinclair, an officer in charge of a battalion in the Scottish highlands. Sinclair hails from a humble background. Therefore, he bitterly resents being replaced by Basil Barrow (John Mills, a very good actor in his own right), whose ancestors also commanded the same garrison and who was raised as a member of Britain's privileged classes. The two men have very different ideas about social propriety, military responsibilities, and moral discipline. As Sinclair and Barrow clash, the other officers don't know whom to support. Everyone has a sense of duty, yet everyone also has personal agendas. The conflict reaches its climax when Barrow must decide Sinclair's fate after Sinclair strikes a corporal (a low-ranking enlisted soldier) for dating his daughter.
The most striking example of the men's differences is their differing approach towards a certain social dance. The men at the base are used to dancing with one arm waving in the air, but Barrow thinks that it's tawdry to raise either arm at all. Therefore, we are treated to a couple of amusing scenes with middle-aged men yelling at each other about placing hands on their hips and whatnot.
Sinclair is not a sympathetic figure. In fact, during his very first scene, you get the sense that he is a vicious bully and a bad drunk. Yet, it's not entirely appropriate to call Sinclair a brute. He genuinely cares for his daughter, and his bitter disappointment at finding his lover keeping a potential enemy company is palpable. It's hard to know what to make of this stubborn rascal, especially when he's played by someone who's usually thought of as one of the "good guys".
John Mills won the Best Actor award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, and he's very good as Basil Barrow. While his character is supposed to recede into the shadows once Sinclair asserts his personality dominance, yet Mills manages to make us think that his character has numerous facets just by sweating and holding furrowed eye brows together. What's devastating is that he is able to express Barrow's slow realization that the days of his kind (the type represented by his grandfather, who ran the base, too) are numbered. Therefore, to Barrow, the way that Sinclair wants to govern affairs seems like a disaster.
The movie is only 106-minutes long, yet it felt very laborious. There are excessive repeated motifs and situations. The conflict between Sinclair and Barrow is not always filled with the kind of tension that generates viewer interest. Once the comedic elements disappear after the second third of the narrative begins, the movie sinks for a bit before entering a decent final phase involving the hitting-a-corporal occurrence.
For the most part, the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks like most movies from the late-1950s and early-1960s. The picture is rather grainy at times, and colors look faded and not quite realistic. However, the print is fairly sharp, clear, and clean for a movie that's more than forty-years-old.
There is a huge problem, though. For about a fifth of the movie's running, there is a dark green line (transparent) that runs vertically through the right-hand side of the frame. This is a problem that has been confirmed with the people at Criterion, and the line ran through the best available print.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 English will give most viewers a difficult time. The actors use at-times incomprehensible Scottish accents, and there's a harsh, shrill, and thin quality to the way that the soundtrack reproduces human voices. The same goes for the at-times ear-splitting music. Still, the audio is mercifully free of hiss and other distortions (which would've made watching the movie almost unbearable).
Optional English subtitles support the audio.
As with most other Criterion DVDs, this one features substantive extras rather than a lot of fluff. There is an informative video interview with director Ronald Neame, and the audio interview with actor Sir John Mills is equally insightful. There's also a BBC television interview with Sir Alec Guinness that was conducted during the 1960s. Finally, you get to watch the movie's theatrical trailer.
A fold-out insert provides an essay about the movie, DVD production credits, movie production credits, DVD production notes, and chapter listings.
"Tunes of Glory" is an intelligent examination of changing times, changing mores, and changing values. However, its pacing is often rather rough, and the characters seem to be stuck doing the same things over and over again. I suppose the pacing and the repetition help viewers feel the monotony of the soldiers' lives, but the point could've been made without making me want to shut off the TV sometimes.