Sunday, October 2, 2011

#225: Tunes of Glory

(Ronald Neame, 1960)

Tunes of Glory belongs to the long tradition of classy productions which has defined British cinema for many viewers in - depending on one's views - either a derogatory or exemplary fashion. I choose to place myself somewhere in the middle, recognizing these works for their superb technical achievements (which ironically mostly consist of hiding the technicality of filmmaking) but often bemoaning the starched thematic constructs and old-fashioned pacing.

Characteristically, then, Neame's Tunes of Glory is alternately quite moving and somewhat emotionally distant. The film contains some truly fine performances, including one from Alec Guinness at the center which may be his best I've ever seen. But the script can get bogged down in the development of the characters' motivations and interactions. This often leads to the film feeling oddly theatrical at times, despite its origins as a novel. Even the worst of these moments, however, are carried by Guinness and John Mills in particular and the cast in general, as films of this nature so often are. Neame's direction, in a similarly typical fashion, is invisible to the casual viewer, but manages to reinforce the separation Mills feels from his men and the arrogant camaraderie Guinness employs so naturally to his benefit.  It's a thankless task in a field too often judged only on auteurism - and it's why his work has largely fallen into the middle of the historical pack - but it makes Neame an admirable craftsman.

Judging a film like Tunes of Glory - or for that matter any film of a similar nature - by modern standards of drama can often be unfair. Today's audience is used to seeing protagonists of either common or particularly exceptional nature - the everyday middle-class professional or the famous musician/politician/artist. Very rarely are we exposed to emotionally distant men tasked to a higher calling who are struggling within their own humanity and social constraints, and when we are (as in work like Mad Men) it is often through the prism of modern rhythms and perspectives. So when a film like Tunes of Glory explores lower-c conservative life it is more difficult for the broader audience to see its message as a timeless one beyond the social construct it inhabits - one of those "forest for the trees" situations. In this case, it's a beautiful forest, it's just that some of the trees have lost their luster.

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