Beau Geste (1939)

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  • directed by William A. Wellman
  • starring Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Ray Milland, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Heather Thatcher, J. Carrol Naish
  • The disappearance of the Blue Water sapphire sends the Geste Brothers—Beau, John, and Digby—off to join the French Foreign Legion, leaving England in disgrace.

“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon, but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars and endures like the word of the prophet,” – Arabian proverb.

I can never fully appreciate shot-for-shot remakes, but in the case of Beau Geste, which was virtually a carbon copy of the 1926 silent version, I will cut it some slack because Wellman’s main goal was showcasing how far film had advanced in those 13 years. Based on the P.C. Wren novel from 1924, Beau Geste is the third of three imperial dramas that I’ve watched from this year, a trio that also includes George Stevens’ Gunga Din and Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers. It leaves me pondering what is it about these types of films, which all feature battles that arise from colonial rule, that proved so popular with audiences at the time. They are all classic and entirely watchable, don’t get me wrong, but as far as the complex nature of the material goes, the best I can come up with is that they have a way of providing all the drum-beating energy and excitement of a war film but with a little less of the guilt and feeling of deep patriotic loss. Of the three, Korda’s effort stands out most due to the vibrancy of his Technicolor work, but the films all deal with missions abroad in similar locales, whether they be expansive deserts or barren, isolated villages.

Beau Geste and his two brothers, Digby and John, are orphans under the care of Lady Patricia Brandon. We are shown that the brothers grew up with a great love of adventure and years later they’re able to flee home to seize it due to a series of events surrounding the disappearance of Lady Brandon’s prized sapphire. The whereabouts of the sapphire and the plot twists of each brother admitting to the robbery is a bit under-developed and never too deep of a mystery because it obviously only exists to give the brothers a reason to go off and join the French Foreign Legion, something that they were born to do anyway. The French Foreign Legion was started to recruit troublemakers and failed revolutionaries from all over Europe to pursue France’s worldwide interests, fight its enemies, and don its colors. It’s kind of hard to believe that the Legion has fought in so many wars and even continues to this day, though being comprised of the so-called bottom level of society has made it a not so smooth journey along the way. I think the story instills the goal of joining the Legion into the Geste brothers as a way to emphasize the fact that all Beau, Digby, and John have are each other. There is no family to speak of in their past, and now, no country in their present or future. Anything for an adventure.

When the action moves to Northern Africa, the brothers find themselves together but in the middle of two growing conflicts. First, there is the traditional conflict arising from the colonial pursuits of France, this time involving the nomadic Tuaregs of the Sahara. But on their own side, the threat of a ruthless and corrupted Sergeant Markoff is much more immediate. You really get a sense of how little these Legion soldiers mean to the larger military arm by how they were treated and also by how flippant they were in the face of authority. The commander constantly antagonizes his own troops and when the Tuaregs finally attack, he then carries out a number of dishonorable acts, including propping up dead soldiers to make his troop numbers appear intact and looting the body of a dying Beau. To a dead soldier that he carries into the line of fire he says, “The rest of the bullets you stop won’t hurt as much as that first one.” Sure, it makes sense, and it could be a tactic that gives the French the edge over the Tuaregs, but I’m thinking it’s most likely against an unspoken military code or two. It was an enjoyably morbid sequence, though, and Brian Donlevy’s performance as the aggressive, miserable, and discipline-happy Markoff stood out most of all. One of my other favorite sequences was the dark and depressing Viking’s funeral that Digby gives his brother in the fort. He places a dog (Markoff) at his feet, sets the barracks on fire, and plays him out on the bugle before the flames consume the entire room.

Beau Geste featured a few classic scenes, some great photography by Wellman, and did a great job at conveying the strong brotherly bond that all three Gestes share. It was also unique in that it featured the French Legion, a group made up of members that sometimes cared less about the mission at hand than they did simply belonging and messing around. It makes mutinies and insubordination fairly commonplace and gave the honorable and adventure-seeking Geste brothers a lot to contend with.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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