If two people care deeply about the same thing you might expect they could work well together. Yet it's precisely this profound agreement that makes so many people into bitter enemies. In 1960's Tunes of Glory, a Scottish military battalion finds itself torn between two colonels, each of whom feels the other's personality spells ruin for everything the battalion means, physically and spiritually. The two men are brilliantly played by Alec Guinness and John Mills in this film with beautiful sets and locations. It suffers a bit from a little broadly expository dialogue, especially near the end, but nothing can take away the psychological portraits sketched by these performances.
The boisterous, hard drinking Major Sinclair (Guinness) has been "acting colonel" since he was forced to take over the battalion during World War II. Now that the war's over and the battalion's back in Scotland, a real colonel has been assigned to lead them in the form of Lieutenant Colonel Barrow (Mills). His credentials seem at first to be academic--one officer can only recall that he's a brilliant lecturer. But in fact, Barrow had spent much of his time during the war as a prisoner. Now, returning home, he hopes to make the battalion, the command of which he sees as his birthright, better than it ever was.
Sinclair's misgivings about the gentleman colonel seem to be well founded when Barrow soon has the men drilling on such trivial matters as dancing. Barrow is overcome with fury when he sees the men raising their hands over their heads when cutting a caper. His obsession with form overrides any fear that making himself look the ridiculous pedant will be bad for the battalion's morale and reputation.
Sinclair, resentful at being downgraded to second in command, sides with men who show up ten minutes late to duty or wear their caps cocked the wrong way. This, in turn, exacerbates Barrow's dislike for Sinclair. Then, in an unrelated matter, Sinclair punches a sergeant in uniform, an offense punishable by court martial, regardless of the assailant's rank. The question of whether or not to punish Sinclair becomes about whether it's better for the soul of the battalion to show it can follow the rules, however difficult, or whether it's better to give the beloved major a pass due to the circumstances, among them being the victim's desire not to press charges. The point of view shifts from moment to moment. The tricky thing is how Barrow will see himself in making whatever decision he makes.
Mills portrays a man trying desperately to show the resolve expected of a great leader while also being naturally averse to being the cause of suffering. His profound insecurity shows through his gentle manners and Mills conveys with adept subtlety the long lasting trauma of a prisoner of war.
Guinness is also great, doing more with his voice than putting on a Scottish accent. He roars through sentences or is sarcastic with sadistic mirth. In one scene that's both amusing and alarming he pretends to make coffee for a cold blooded officer played by Dennis Price at his most reptilian. For all the bombast of Sinclair, I'd say Price's cool insinuations do a lot more damage to Barrow's mental state.
The end of the film reaches a little too far. I like the idea of Sinclair fearing a ghost--he certainly has good reason to--but the scene where he talks about it feels too abrupt and expository. The film might have been better if there had been a subplot about ghosts or a ghost story that's repeatedly referred to so that the similarities in circumstance at the end could be eerily self evident. It should have been something read on Sinclair's face, not dumped in his words. But I can't fault Guinness' performance and there's a real effective heartbreak underlying the whole film.
Tunes of Glory is available on The Criterion Channel.