NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

03/03/2021

I note that the Wikipedia entry on Tunes of Glory—a 1960 adaptation of James Kennaway’s novel (Kennaway also wrote the screenplay) directed by Ronald Neame and restored by the Academy Film Archive in collaboration with The Film Foundation, Janus Films, and MoMA with funding from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation—identifies the film as a “dark psychological drama,” a quote from a brief article in TCM’s database. This little turn of phrase, innocuous as it might seem, perfectly embodies what Martin Scorsese calls the “devaluation of cinema.” Such quick, encapsulating descriptions are nothing new of course, but now they’re pervasive, employed as marketing tools and “critical” summations and categories on streaming platforms. Every film now, old or new, is imagined to be reducible to a basic essence, easily describable and thus dismissible. This is the attempted consumerization of the filmgoing experience: every viewing occasion tailored to your tastes and needs.

I use the word “attempted” because, of course, there’s always the simple matter of choice. This is true of so many aspects of the social media/streaming world. I remember a conversation with a younger friend a few years back, who complained about how easy it is to get caught up in Tweet wars. She went on for a bit, and I suggested that she simply drop it—get off of Twitter. For her, it was unthinkable. “You have to participate,” she said. Actually, you don’t.

On the internet, a friend explained to me many years ago, 300 words is a tome. 300 words is not even close to enough to describe the experience of Tunes of Glory. Dramatically speaking, the film is a war of nerves between an upper crust Colonel, newly arrived to lead a Scottish regiment (Kennaway himself had served with the Gordon Highlanders) and a hard-drinking working class major who has come up in the ranks and led the regiment through most of WWII after the death of their colonel in battle. Discipline and tradition and breeding vs. camaraderie and relaxation of rules and hard knocks. Who will break, the delicately constituted Colonel or the beloved and violently impulsive Major? But that's just the bare bones of the conflict. The movie is something else again, a vivid tapestry of reactions and counter reactions that find physical expression in the cloistered world, visually and psychologically, of Scottish military life, and it reaches an astonishing pitch through the acting of John Mills as the Colonel and Alec Guinness as the Major, who cuts an alarming figure with his ginger brush cut, a swaggering, needling, hard-drinking, unruly braggart, who is finally unleashed and dangerous. (Mills and Guinness were supposedly offered each other’s eventual roles and swapped.) Dark? Hardly—the action plays out in vivid color and is emotionally vibrant and electrifying. Psychological? Sure, but again, that’s just the starting point. I saw Tunes of Glory for the first time myself not too many years ago, and I was overwhelmed. For those who choose to actually watch it rather than consume it, you might have a similar reaction.

That’s 505 words, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface.

- Kent Jones

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TUNES OF GLORY (1960, d. Ronald Neame)
Restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation in collaboration with Janus Films and The Museum of Modern Art. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

 

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