Minding the Gaps: 'Tunes of Glory' (1960)
Alec Guinness delivers a tour de force performance as a complicated, flawed Scottish military man in Ronald Neame's post-wartime drama.
Minding the Gaps is a recurring feature in which Keith Phipps watches and writes about a movie he’s never seen before as selected at random by the app he uses to catalog a DVD and Blu-ray collection accumulated over the course of the last 20+ years. It’s an attempt to fill in the gaps in his film knowledge while removing the horrifying burden of choice. This is the seventh entry.
I didn’t really appreciate Alec Guinness until I started to learn about Peter Sellers. As a ’70s/‘80s kid, Guinness was first and foremost Obi-Wan Kenobi. I saw him first in Star Wars and that remained my primary association for years. And, to be honest, my high school and college film watching didn’t intersect with Guinness’s filmography all that much. I saw Doctor Zhivago at some point in college, but I wouldn’t catch up with Lean until later and I’m not even sure I made the connection that the guy in Murder by Death and Scrooge — two films I watched on television a lot as a kid — was the same guy who mentored Luke Skywalker. Now I understand that that was kind of the point. Guinness melted into his roles. He tried to disappear.
It was Roger Lewis’s 1997 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers that forced me to see Guinness in a different light. I learned that Sellers idolized Guinness, calling him “an absolute idol of mine” as he recalled watching him “do everything, his rehearsals, his scenes, everything” when they worked together on The Ladykillers. In my uninformed mind, Guinness was another titan of the British stage and screen of the Lawrence Olivier school. Why would someone like that be the idol of Inspector Clouseau?
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Fortunately, it was pretty easy to disabuse myself of this notion just by watching The Ladykillers, in which he plays a villainous grotesque. That led to other Ealing comedies which were just as revelatory. Of course Sellers worshiped Guinness. Sellers’ whole career can be seen as an extended attempt to do what Guinness did in Kind Hearts and Coronets, where he played nine characters, each their own distinct comic creation. Ealing led me back to Lean and on from there. It didn’t take long to realize Guinness wasn’t just some respected British actor brought in to bring gravity to a space opera and that Star Wars could be seen as a footnote to the rest of his career, from a certain point of view. Still, I’d never gotten around to the 1960 film Tunes of Glory, which received a Criterion Collection release back in 2004, despite enjoying his raspy-voiced bohemian in The Horse’s Mouth, one of two films Guinness made with director Ronald Neame prior to Tunes of Glory.. That character, and the largely lighthearted film containing it, have little in common with Tunes of Glory. With Neame, Guinness seemingly found a collaborator as willing to shift gears and as eager to avoid repeating himself as he was.
Fittingly, it might take viewers a moment even to recognize Guinness in the film, in which he plays Jock Sinclair, the acting commander of a Scottish Highland Battalion that he led with tremendous success through some of the hairiest days of World War II, taking them from the North African campaign to Europe. With a head of red hair cut with military precision and a tidy mustache to match it, Jock gives Guinness yet another chance to transform himself physically. That transformation provides the foundation on which Guinness builds the rest of the performance, from his flawless (at least to my ears) Scottish accent to a face that breaks into a broad, slightly cruel grin as he has fun at the expense of a young officer he feels is not smoking his cigarette in a sufficiently masculine manner. Jock knows what his battalion needs and how it should behave, mixing disciplined days with whisky-soaked nights of lads cutting loose. But his day is set to come to an end.
The year is 1948, the war is over, and the troops have returned home. And however impressive Jock’s wartime accomplishments might have been, his higher-ups have opted to bring in another officer as his superior. Specifically, they’ve turned to Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills), a member of the same military family that founded the battalion whose credentials include a stint teaching at Oxford. Jock is not impressed and almost immediately begins undermining Barrow’s authority in every way he can. It’s a clash between slobs and snobs, of “real” military men and privileged ivory tower theoreticians.
Except it’s not. Adapted by James Kennaway from his novel of the same name, the film complicates that seemingly pat dynamic with each scene via revelations that make both Barrow and Jock more complex than they first appear and behavior that send viewers’ sympathies ping-ponging back-and-forth. One mid-film stretch involves Barrow demanding his men learn to dance the “proper” way then shutting down a successful cocktail party with a screaming spectacle because they’re not meeting his demands. But rather than depict Barrow simply as a jerk, it follows that moment with some hints of his own, dark wartime experiences in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, just enough to suggest that this outburst has deep roots that those around him can’t see and that he’ll never reveal in detail.
Mills is excellent in a less attention-grabbing performance and he and Guinness play off each other brilliantly, their contrasting performance styles accentuating the gulf between their characters. But it’s Guinness who delivers the tour-de-force, making Jock by turns admirable, endearing, frustrating, and detestable. He’s a man who hasn’t resolved the contradictions at the heart of his existence. In one scene, he encourages a young bagpiper to live it up and misbehave with his sweetheart only to later turn apoplectic when he learns that said sweetheart is his daughter (Susannah York, who gets an “and introducing” in the opening credits). He’s devoted to the military, but in some ways it’s a version of the military he’s invented himself, one tailored to his own preferences and combustible mix of commanding imperiousness and rough-and-tumble, paternalistic, ‘at’s-a-good-lad bonhomie. His authority stems in part from no one around him ever quite knowing where they stand with him. It’s not an approach that can go the distance, particularly now that his wartime volatility has become a peacetime liability.
I haven’t seen every Guinness movie (and nothing, naturally, from the long stage career that ran parallel to his film work that was, by all reports just as remarkable) but this is unlike any other performance of his I’ve seen, one in which he reveals a new wrinkle in Jock’s personality in seemingly every scene. It was also one of the last true lead performances he’d give, even though some of his most famous work lay ahead of him. With a few exceptions (including a notable TV run as John le Carré’s George Smiley), he’d mostly take on supporting roles, albeit supporting roles it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing, in films like Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and, yes, Star Wars. (I’ve never seen his turn as the ghost of Sigmund Freud in the Dudley Moore comedy Lovesick but I’m sure that’s great too.) It’s also impossible to imagine that shift being anything but a matter of choice. He could work in the spotlight, but Guinness’s art was one of concealment, disappearing into a role until he couldn’t really be seen anymore, until nothing remained of him but the character he was playing, one that looked nothing like the one he played before or one he’d play in the future, be it space wizard or master spy. Guinness made a deep and lasting imprint on movies because he seemed not to be there at all.
Next: Le Notti Bianche (1957)
Previously in this column:
Death Valley (1982)
Cherry 2000 (1987)
The Devil is a Woman (1935)
Walking Tall Part 2 (1975)
End of Summer (1961)
This really was a revelation when I saw it; Guinness is amazing in a role I thought would fade in the background as the other characters take prominence, but he seizes the film back for a great final scene.
I also really enjoyed Dennis Price who at first seems to be a steady contrast to Guinness and Mills, but later reveals himself to be unbelievably cruel. Really good performances in this!