US Release Date: 09-15-1939
Directed by: William A. Wellman
- Gary Cooper, as
- Michael Beau Geste
- Ray Milland, as
- John Geste
- Robert Preston, as
- Digby Geste
- Brian Donlevy, as
- Sgt. Markoff
- Susan Hayward, as
- Isobel Rivers
- J. Carrol Naish, as
- Albert Dekker, as
- Legionnaire Schwartz
- Broderick Crawford, as
- Hank Miller
- Charles Barton, as
- Buddy McMonigal
- James Stephenson, as
- Maj. Henri de Beaujolais
- Heather Thatcher, as
- Lady Patricia Brandon
- Donald O'Connor as
- Beau Geste as a Child
Ray Milland, Gary Cooper and Robert Preston in Beau Geste.
I am not sure what it was about 1939, but it truly was a year that made some great films. Patrick has often gone on about that, and for good reason. I rented Beau Geste because I like Gary Cooper, not for when it was made. After I enjoyed the movie so much I noticed it was from 1939 and could just picture Patrick telling me, "I told you so!"
It is a story of three brothers, and loyalty. It is about sacrifice and duty. Honor so often seems a lost concept these days, but it is held in high regard here. The movie opens with a forward based on an Arabian proverb, "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." Wow, I never thought I would ever use a positive reference to Mohamad in a review.
Beau Geste has one of the greatest opening scenes of any movie ever made. An army of the French Foreign Legion arrive at a fort in the desert. The rampart has men all along it, but no one answers when the soldiers call up to them. Eventually the bugler goes over the wall to see what happened, but he never returns. An officer then goes over, only to discover that everyone of the men on the ramparts are dead, and the bugler is nowhere in sight.
To explain everything, the movie goes to a flash back of three brothers living with their aunt in an English mansion. Along with another boy and a girl, they play pirate and have a pleasant enough youth. Beau, the eldest brother, discovers a secret that later leads to him and his brothers joining the French Foreign Legion.
They protect each other, and stick together when the other men want to mutiny against their cruel company commander who always calls them scum. The secret that brought them to Africa shows back up and gets them into trouble. Eventually it all leads them to the fort in the desert that the movie opens with, and explains exactly what happened.
Beau Geste is a great old fashion adventure tale. It has some intriguing mysteries and just enough action. If only they could have given the brothers more distinct personalities. One is the oldest, and thus the leader. Another one is in love with their childhood playmate. Pay attention to them playing pirate, as it comes back into the movie in what is a very satisfying ending.
Ray Milland and Gary Cooper in Beau Geste.
This 1939 adaptation of P.C. Wren's best selling novel, was the second of three big screen versions. It has also been made into a BBC series and been parodied by the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Marty Feldman. This version, a close remake of the 1926 silent film version, is perhaps the best known of the three major adaptations and it stands today as a classic.
As Eric wrote, the movie opens with a mystery that draws you in immediately. The fort in the desert, populated only with dead men, still standing at their posts, with the gates locked from the inside, and a note that mentions the theft of a valuable gem, is a great way to begin a story. It had me hooked from the beginning. And most rewarding of all is the fact that the solutions to those mysteries are all made clear by the film's end, in a most satisfying manner and it even includes a final twist at the very climax that is most satisfying of all.
I've never been the biggest fan of Gary Cooper, but he is a very iconic performer from Hollywood's Golden Age. He was one of those actors who didn't bother with accents and so uses his normal speaking voice throughout. Despite that minor quibble, he delivers a solid performance here as the oldest of three brothers. His flippancy and sense of mischievous fun masks a deep seated sense of loyalty and duty in the best British tradition.
Acting as the Geste brothers' foil is the scene-stealing Brian Donlevy as the evil Sgt. Markoff. Donlevy was Oscar nominated for his performance and he deserved it. He's cruel, greedy and dominating, but he's also the only reason the fort isn't overrun by the Arabs. As one character tells him, "You're a good soldier, Markoff, but I doubt if you're a good sergeant."
At nearly two hours, the film does run a bit long and there is some room for trimming in the middle. However, once the mutiny begins at the fort, the film never lets up until we've caught back up to that opening scene.
This adventure tale, with its moral of self-sacrifice and sense of duty might be old fashioned, but it still manages to entertain all these decades later.
Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Gary Cooper in Beau Geste.
This sound remake of the silent version of Beau Geste is yet another feather in the cap of the year 1939. The Hollywood studios were firing on all cylinders in those years between the end of the Great Depression and the United States' entry into the Second World War (1937-1941), with 1939 representing the summit. In 1990 the United States Post Office issued four commemorative stamps honoring great films from 1939 and they chose Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Beau Geste.
I can only agree with Eric and Scott about the opening scene and the way the story unfolds. It really draws you in and the flashbacks of the Geste's as children introduces the characters in an interesting manner and also shows how the central mystery of the missing gem begins. The three Geste brothers are loyal to a fault and they always stick together. This adds considerable emotional heft to the ending where Digby carries out Beau's wishes.
However, as has been noted before, Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston are definitely not brothers. They don't at all look or sound alike or seem to come from the same family background even. Especially when you consider that Beau and Digby are supposed to be twins. I thought perhaps since they were orphans that this was a subtle way of suggesting, through casting, that they might not be full brothers. That they may in fact have had only one of their parents in common but apparently this is not the case. Fortunately this isn't a big enough flaw to mar what is a rousing adventure tale filled with a romantic sense of honor and a heartfelt sentimental love of brother for brother.
William A. Wellman was a no nonsense director with an eye for adventure in his films. He was also one tough son of a bitch who had actually served in the French Foreign Legion during WWI. He flew combat missions over Germany where he was eventually shot down. He walked away from the crash but walked with a limp for the rest of his life. He was given the nickname “Wild Bill” during the war and carried the moniker proudly throughout his years in Hollywood.
He became famous for making pictures with plenty of action, particularly war films with aviation sequences like Wings, which earned the very first Best Picture Oscar and featured a young Gary Cooper in a bit part. He also directed the movie that made James Cagney a star, 1931's The Public Enemy, and he directed Clark Gable in The Call of the Wild in 1935. In 1937 he helmed two bona fide classics, the original A Star is Born and the screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (both early examples of Technicolor). In 1945 he made the original version of The Story of G.I. Joe. Wellman directed his last movie in 1958 and spent the final 17 years of his life regaling interviewers with colorful anecdotes from his very fascinating life. William A. Wellman died December 9, 1975 in Hollywood, California at the age of 79.
This 1939 version of Beau Geste is a classic in every sense of the word. It may have been a nearly shot for shot remake of the 1926 silent version (even using the same sets in Yuma, Arizona) but it has long surpassed that version in the hearts of classic movie lovers. I'm glad I finally got around to watching it as it is one of those movies I'd been meaning to see for years. It more than lived up to my expectations with its potent mix of action and sentiment culminating in a truly memorable ending. On a personal note I couldn't help but see a bit of Eric, Scott and myself reflected in Beau, John and Digby.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1939)