Monday, May 25, 2009

Tunes of Glory

An interesting study of not only two men on the extremes of temperaments--one a whiskey-drinking, self-pitying, darling of men, chummy, able officer (Sinclair) who leads them through the war in an acting capacity but successfully, the other (Barrow) who was born into the regiment and sees its successful command as the salvation of his life, who tries to make men his own models, a strict disciplinarian, living by the rule-book--but also how a great film is usually made not through directorial tricks, but the best actors you can gather and a good enough screenplay, is Tunes of Glory. Editing unnecessarily and having montages of flows in an obvious aim to obfuscate the viewer and make his spidery brain tick has become the norm of the game today: it's high time we return to a game in which high tricks win the game and not bluffing.

The greatness of Alec Guinness lies in that he was approached for the role of Barrow, since he was most naturally suited to the role through his own persona, plus Barrow was yet another variation on the Col. Nicholson played so adeptly by him in the David Lean masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai. Guinness refused it and instead offered for Sinclair: on the simple grounds that he is an actor only if he can step out of his own skin and play someone else, since an actor "pretends." His word, as of any man good in his craft, was enough weight, and thankfully the director Ronald Neame took him on board as Sinclair and then cast John Mills as Barrow, another casting coup of sorts since Mills never used to play an aristocratic crusty gent. As Neame himself said, the beauty of Mills' performance was that if any other actor had played Barrow, it would've been easily overshadowed by Sinclair; but now the film has two counter-magnates, each of whom the viewer sympathises with in turns and still not commit wholeheartedly to either. Guinness of course was simply amazing: to change himself so completely, his whole personality, even how he walked and sat and everything about him, would have been nerve wracking, and it would have been impossible for him to go back to the real Guinness till some time after the film was shot.

The supporting cast is excellent, with Duncan Macrae as the pipe major and Susannah York as Sinclair's pretty daughter Morag especially good in their limited screen times. One of the most interesting things is of course the screenplay in itself; the balance between the two characters is finely etched out, the short effective punches of Mills alternating with the long rants of Guinness and in between the rest of the regiment, like hung on a thread between the two and not knowing what to do. Dennis Price (playing Battalion Executive Officer Charlie Scott) tries to sway the thread and disturbs the equilibrium, hastening the inevitable tragedy at the climax. It is unfortunate indeed that the tunes of glory are so often rung out when the moment is already past: and man only knows to see truly in retrospect.

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