Outstreched arm

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Looney Tunes

Two days ago I got the idea of commemorating Coincidence Day, when we can all oooh and aaah over trivial similarities, corelations, and improbabilities - in short, ends of the normal curve. June 28th it is, then.

Appropriately enough, I have an example from that very day. Netflix had recommended that I see Tunes of Glory, and I was sure that I never would, since it looked kind of goofy. But then I came home and noticed my brother had picked it up at the library, and it looked a bit better in person. That's all I have to say for the coincidence (are you spooked out?)

The movie: Jock Sinclair, played by Alec Guinness, commands a kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, whiskey-swilling brigade in Scotland, and no one wears a kilt or dances or drinks like he does. He's a self-made man, loud and boisterous, but the men like him for his brutish approachability and folksiness. He announces that he will soon be replaced by Col. Basil Barrow (understated but powerful John Mills), a privileged, by-the-book army nerd from a well-known military family. The two men take an instant disliking to each other, as one formally controls the brigade (Barrow), while the other has their spirit on his side. Things get hairy when Sinclair's drunken episode puts him at Barrow's mercy: whatever Barrow's decision on how to discipline Sinclair, he'll lose, as he'll be seen as either cowardly or a vengeful.

The military setting is almost incidental; it's mainly a formal container for the rule-driven group. The conflict between the men is not anything you haven't seen or read before: one lets his men get away with minor informalities, while the other makes up a rule when there isn't one. It's easy to sympathize with Sinclair for most of the film (though not in the opening scene, at least not in my case), but the story isn't all that naive. Actually, by the end, the situation got so ethically and empathically complex that I wasn't really sure it could be resolved in a satisfying and believable manner. I won't give it away except to say that it does untangle neatly (I use that word with some reservation.)

Ronald Neame's direction is of the spotless sort common in the 1950s, and the script is compelling (though it does away with the romantic subplot rather hastily), but Guinness' performance is what stands out. He's a man quite certain of his own convictions and ideas who externalizes his inner conflicts immediately. The character of Sinclair goes through many situations of wildly varying emotional requirements, and Guinness is always spot-on. He's a theatrical actor, but with a feeling for subtle movements only the camera fully appreciates (watch when he quickly covers the discomfort at being asked if he's staying with the brigade after Clarrow takes over.) Mills' boiling-pot Barrow is shadowed by this wide performance, but he does a fabulous job himself, especially when he explodes so gradually you could draw the curve on the celluloid.

There are a few missteps here, some involving unneeded comic relief by private Wacky, but a more annoying one is the odd introduction of the supernatural (or at least the perception of it). If it's real and actual within the movie, it's silly. If it's only inside Sinclair's head, it's too literal a device - we can read Guinness' face just fine without it. Actually, there's almost no point in making the distinction, since this is a work of fiction, after all - what were ghosts doing inside writer James Kennaway's head? is the question.

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