The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tunes of Glory

Sometimes I can't help but think that British movies -- compared to Hollywood movies -- just get it. No over the top action, no fancy CGI or special effects, just that old reliable...acting. All it can take to pull a viewer in is a tour-de-force performance from an actor or actress, and you're hooked. Production values can be slim to none, but as long as the acting is on target chances are the movie will be a winner.

There I go again with vague, sweeping generalities, but British movies seem to rely more on acting above all else, with actors like Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough, and of course, Alec Guinness. The English actor was a chameleon when it came to his roles, and I can't help but wonder if he'd be more well-known for his overall ability if he hadn't been in Star Wars. So many people associate him with Obi-Wan Kenobi that the rest of his movies have been somewhat forgotten. But in 1960's Tunes of Glory, Guinness once again shows how strong an actor he really was.

In command of a Highlands battalion in the years following WWII, Major Jock Sinclair (Guinness) is loved by his men. He led them through WWII in Europe and is really just one of the men...albeit with a higher rank. Sinclair is not the strictest of commanders and lets smaller things go in lieu of the bigger picture, and for that reason he's loved by his men. The battalion receives a new commander, Colonel Barrow (John Mills), an officer who spent much of the war in a German POW camp with years of desk duty prior to that. Barrow is a stickler for details, doing everything by the book. His command style clashes with Sinclair and what the battalion is used to. A division forms and the conflict comes to a rise when Sinclair strikes a corporal (John Fraser) who has been seeing his daughter (Susannah York).

Should Barrow bring his second-in-command up on charges? He's had prior issues with Sinclair so a court martial might seem like personal revenge. As well, a trial would bring disgrace to the battalion. But if he doesn't, Barrow is going up against everything he believes in. Whatever the Colonel decides to do could very well tear apart the unit from the inside out. This is a story definitely characteristic of a slow-burn, a plot that keeps on building and piling on. As a viewer, you know there will be some sort of confrontation but in what sense? I for one was completely caught off guard by the ending, a downer in every sense of the idea, but one that works and the most appropriate one too. A happy ending would seem out of place here.

This is a movie dominated by two men, Guinness and Mills, and dominated in a good way. Guinness' Sinclair is built up as the man to side with; he's loved by every one from family to fellow officers to his soldiers. There's a vibe off the character though, a little full of himself and quick-tempered. Mills is the toy soldier, the desk jockey who's never seen combat but is tortured still by his time spent in a German POW camp. He doesn't interact well with the men and gives off a sense of superiority to soldier and officer alike. What's interesting in the execution is how the story develops and how our perceptions change -- or at least mine did -- as we learn more about these two men.

With basically the whole story set in this extravagant barracks the battalion lives in and only a few venture outside the wall, the conflict drives things along thanks to the supporting cast. Some of the other battalion's officers include Dennis Price, Allan Cuthbertson, Duncan Macrae, and Paul Whitsun-Jones, some siding with Sinclair and others Barrow. Gordon Jackson especially rises above the rest as Capt. Jimmy Cairns, the battalion adjutant and a man loyal to his commander to a fault. It's one of those supporting roles that doesn't have much in the way of lines but ends up being memorable nonetheless.

No frills moviemaking at its finest. There is nothing flashy about the proceedings, but the story makes this movie special and really worth checking out. Two very different men, but both are strong-willed and even pigheaded when it comes to getting what they want. A Youtube user was kind enough to post the movie into segments, starting here with Part 1 of 10. Well worth your time if you don't mind sitting down at the computer for 105 minutes. Guinness, Mills, and a fine supporting cast don't disappoint.

Tunes of Glory <----trailer (1960): ***/****

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