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Thursday, 19 February 2009

Tunes of Glory (1960)

Director: Ronald Neame
Stars: Alec Guinness and John Mills

I grew up watching Alec Guinness, but looking back I find a surprising few of his films under my belt. He only made fifty of them, after all. I've seen the classics, or least the ones I thought were the classics, from Oliver Twist and The Bridge on the River Kwai to Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, to say nothing of Star Wars. What I'm finding though that they were pretty much all classics, even the ones I'd never even heard of, because every one of them contained a peach of a performance from Sir Alec. This one's no exception.

It pairs him with John Mills, with support from Dennis Price and Gordon Jackson. It even introduces Susannah York, so we're not talking minor names here. Guinness looks bizarre as Maj Jock Sinclair, DSO, MM, the acting colonel of a Scots battalion. However bizarre he looks with his red hair and moustache, to say nothing of his tartan trousers, he looks utterly appropriate, but the most telling thing he wears is his face. He's a loud and lively character with fire in his eyes and a fight right behind them. He's a good man, it seems, and a good leader, but he's a dangerous man and no gentleman, that's for sure. He worked his way up through the ranks from boy piper to get to where he is today.

Unfortunately tomorrow he won't be there any more. Instead of being promoted to colonel and granted him full leadership of the battalion, a fresh colonel is brought in above him, one who hasn't served with the regiment himself but who has history with it going back generations. He's Lt Col Basil Barrow, played by John Mills, and he's a university educated gentleman who saw time in a POW camp during the war, being waterboarded by the enemy in a way very similar to what the Americans have been getting up to in Guantanamo Bay.

While he's generally a calm man, these wartime experiences haven't left him incredibly stable and a battle begins building from the moment they first meet. Barrow doesn't even drink whiskey, which is nigh on heresy to Sinclair. It doesn't take long for him to order dance practice for all officers in the cold at 7.15am three days a week, even though some of them have been dancing reels for thirty years. He believes in the concept that 'dancing should be considered as a social grace rather than a noisy ritual' and that puts him at odds with what seems like every man in the battalion.

Now I've seen many films that saw battalions in battle, but this one may be the first film in which I've seen a full scale battle without ever seeing a war. What's most stunning here is the way it builds in the hands of two masters of their craft. Guinness is the standout but Mills is no slacker here: the scene when he first blows his top is a blistering tour de force. He's hosting a battalion cocktail party and he's ordered his men to dance like gentlemen, yet they disobey and leap around the dancefloor with raucous abandon. His rage grows until it can't be contained and he explodes at them.

Guinness is so magnetic here it's impossible not to watch him. Jock is a fiery character throughout but he does something very dumb halfway through the story and he knows it: on discovering his daughter Morag with one of his pipers, he knocks the man down hard. The worst of it is that he's in a pub and while an officer striking a corporal is a serious offence at the best of times, doing so in public with witnesses present is not easily ignored. For the next half an hour he's like a tornado raging through the film and we're almost scared he's going to rage through the fourth wall at us. Only Dennis Price, the executive officer of the battalion, can blissfully ignore the tension.

This is truly awesome stuff. Both Guinness and Mills give stunning performances, full of as much subtlety as raw power, text book stuff for budding actors to watch and spend a career trying to emulate. It's not just the words they're given or the way they speak them, though the not so subtle dismissals and barbed insults are note perfect; it's in the body language. This is my first time through Tunes of Glory but I'm sure I could watch it time and time with the sound off just to experience the pure craft of the pair of them. The film was only nominated for one Oscar, for James Kennaway's adaptation of his own novel. It's criminal that Guinness and Mills were overlooked, regardless of what the competition was.

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