Two superb performances are the sole merit of the overlong and confusing Tunes of Glory, but they make the entire film worthwhile. Under the spell of Alec Guinness and John Mills, one remains unperturbed by the foolish complexities that James Kennaway has tossed together as a plot, or the familiar characterizations of all the other actors.
In a far more difficult role than his Oscar performance of Bridge on the River Kwai, Guinness makes Colonel Jock Sinclair a three-dimensional personality seldom found in portrayals of a standard sort of crude-but-lovable Highland officer. In Kwai, Sir Alec had to be inflexible to the point of personal sacrifice, but as Sinclair he must be selfish to the detriment of all that he loves. The Colonel claims to love his battalion, yet be lets personal spite bring dissention, disgrace, and finally tragedy down upon it; he pronounces his affection for his daughter (Susannah York), yet he treats her as a propitiation for his own sins, and when she transgresses the petty rules that his ego has erected, he brings disaster to her emotions and near-disaster to his own career. Jock Sinclair is a study in many evils: drunkenness, cruelty, arrogance, hypocrisy; yet Guinness can keep him nearly lovable, and exact such a show of feeling from the Colonel's collapse at the fade as to make him an almost tragic figure, instead of the shoddy, imperious villain that a lesser actor might have left him.
Sinclair's antagonist is Colonel Barrow, a nervous and insecure officer of university background who has been gazetted commanding officer of the Highland battalion over his less educated compatriot's head. John Mills, who always adds a superior performance to his acting credits, steals the show from Guinness as this chilly martinet, a man you cannot love, but with whom you feel obliged to sympathize. Neither Sinclair nor Barrow is a particularly pleasant character, but at least the latter has an excuse for being both stubborn and conciliating, commendable and pathetic--he has undergone torture in a World War II prison camp. To Mills, also, goes the show stopper, should the film stop for a splendid job. Barrow, overpowered with anger at Sinclair's flagrant violation of orders grips the stem of his martini glass, his face burning into a mask of hatred. He cannot continue his polite conversation; he cannot speak; he cannot move. Finally a reaction comes, and he puts down the glass with a shaking hand as he goes to put a stop to the insult to his commands. In the putting down of the glass is indicated the ultimate anger, and also the ultimate actor. The normal "hot blood at cocktails" scene loses all its tension when the protagonist snaps his glass in two from over-emotion.
The plot tries unsucessfully to establish a garrison background for the personality clash that is the real story, and merely causes intense boredom. The convolutions of the additional characters are too much to unravel; suffice it to say that all the army types are just that--types--and the women are loyal and kind, if sparingly and stupidly used. Miss York's part, particularly, is wasted, for she disappears about halfway through the film, never to reappear.
The color photography is pretty, if you like the montage of dreary brown buildings with drearier green grass, and director Ronald Neame uses the camera with heavy-handed steadiness throughout the movie. One bad effect that sticks out from the rest is the effort to produce a symbolic snowfall at the end, to parallel Joyce's Dubliners. Neame had no snowstorm, however, so he had home-made snow dropped before his camera, resulting in the most phony look of the week. Scottish monomaniacs will like the incessant squirl of bagpipes, but most people tend to get very tired very quickly of this form of background music. Yet all of these grade B effects are eclipsed and submerged in the brilliance of Guinness and Mills. They could play their parts on a bare stage and still be magnificent.