Criterion Review: TUNES OF GLORY (1960)

Alec Guinness and John Mills excel in this examination of the British class system

Any release that showcases the talents of Alec Guinness (beyond Star Wars) is worth celebrating. Excelling in features like The Bridge on the River Kwai, or Ealing comedies such as The Man in the White Suit, or The Lavender Hill Mob. Now Criterion deliver another, the relatively underappreciated Tunes of Glory, a film that serves as a showcase for another British stalwart, John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter, Great Expectations, Hobson’s Choice).


In Ronald Neame’s Tunes of Glory, the incomparable Alec Guinness plays Jock Sinclair — a whiskey-drinking, up-by-the-bootstraps commanding officer of a peacetime Scottish battalion. A lifetime military man, Sinclair expects respect and loyalty from his men. But when Basil Barrow (John Mills) — an educated, by-the-book scion of a military family — enters the scene as Sinclair’s replacement, the two men engage in a fierce struggle for control of both the battalion and the hearts and minds of its men. Based on the novel by James Kennaway and featuring flawless performances by Guinness and Mills, Tunes of Glory uses the rigid stratification of military life to comment on the institutional contradictions and class hierarchies of English society, making for an unexpectedly moving drama.

We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to movies about War and the military, but in this instance we get a rather different perspective, looking at the strained relations between two officers stationed in a small village in Scotland. Alec Guinness plays Colonel Jock Sinclair, a rough around the edges, flawed man who lets some personal grievances get in the way of his duty. Coming from a lower class background, he has worked his way up the promotion ladder, and is held with in esteem rather than affection by his men under his command. But his position is not permanent, a seat warmer until the top brass appoint someone they consider more well suited to head up this battalion. Enter John Mills’ Colonel Barrow. A young officer, lacking confidence and experience, but his education and grooming favor his taking charge of this battalion, especially as his grandfather once held the same position. A conflict between the two is exacerbated when Tunes finds his daughter (Susannah York) fraternizing with a young corporal and takes disciplinary matters into his own hands putting Mills in a predicament, one where his lack of experience threatens the career of the man he has come to replace.

While obviously rooted in the intrigue and politics of a military hierarchy, the film deftly explores ides of class and privilege in the UK. A man who has made his way up the ranks through grit and hard work, the other comes from a more wealthy background, educated at Eton and Oxford, and trained at a prestigious military academy. Its experience vs entitlement, with both men are undermined in their claims in different ways. Sinclair often blurs the lines between commanding officer and drinking buddy, a man accustomed to war and finding it hard to figure out his place during peacetime, and a upbringing and society leaving him with a streak of vindictiveness and arrogance, but fundamentally a likeable sort, thanks for the deft work of Guinness. Barrow is altogether more wet behind the ears, less affable and more rigid in his manner and adherence to the rules. A clash of culture and style, with gentlemanly reserve and proper office conduct giving way to charged emotions. Guinness grabs the attention as the brash Jock, but its impossible to not be equally captivated by Mills’ quietly compelling turn. The film also dangles another character Major Scott ( Dennis Price) a more well rounded sort who amusingly might be far better suited to command than either of the options presented.

What is most admirable about Tunes of Glory is that is doesn’t pick sides, carefully giving credence to both sides. Highlighting advantages and handicaps, preconceptions and attitudes, for the legacy of a class system that is perpetuated through a multitude of institutions. Its a tale that rings authentic, no doubt aided by the source material, 1956 novel by James Kennaway, himself a upper-class sort, highly educated, and having pursued a military career. The author also penned the screenplay which garnered a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1960 Academy Awards. Neame is to be commended for his part, with brisk and sharp direction, crafting a film well balanced and still incisive. Focused and immersive, building up the pressure, and most importantly letting two British acting legends take center stage.

The Package

There is a really pleasing natural quality to this transfer, cinematic with a healthy natural filmic grain. Colors are strong, detail and contrast also impress. Extra features are:

  • Interview from 2003 with director Ronald Neame: A detailed reflection on the film’s production, with Neame being remarkably lucid in his recollections
  • Audio interview from 2002 with actor John Mills: You get the impression his manners are holding him back from saying anything truly interesting, but it’s still a delight to hear him comment on such a career as he’s had
  • Television interview from 1973 with actor Alec Guinness: A delightful interview that gives Guinness pretty free reign to talk, in which he delves into much of his career, with a growing focus on Tunes of Glory. Having seen several interviews with the actor over the years, he’s positively chatty here
  • Trailer: Interesting to see how this was marketed vs the reality of the film
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Robert Murphy: A deep, perceptive dive into the films characters and themes, included in the liner booklet

The Bottom Line

While there are plenty of films that exist showing the problems encountered by the military during wartime, Tunes of Glory is a standout with its look at conflict during a time of peace, and feels timeless in it’s exploration of social themes and class. Guinness and Mills are magnificent and well deserving of your attention, as is this release from Criterion.

Tunes of Glory is available via Criterion from December 3rd

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