I’m continuing my series of postings on William A Wellman films with a look at another of his smash hits. However, Beau Geste is very different from most of his movies that I’ve discussed so far. Returning from Technicolor to atmospheric black and white, this is a melodramatic imperialist adventure in the vein of Gunga Din or The Four Feathers, which were both released in the same celebrated movie year, 1939. At the outbreak of the Second World War, military danger and heroism were in the air. Gary Cooper takes the title role as Michael “Beau” Geste, with Ray Milland and Robert Preston as his two brothers. The story is set in the pre-First World War period, as the three all run away from their English home to join the French foreign legion after the mysterious theft of a rare jewel. They end up in the Sahara, commanded by a sadistic sergeant (Oscar-nominated Brian Donlevy). Based on a bestselling 1920s novel by now largely forgotten writer PC Wren, the film is a strange mixture of wildly noble gestures, as its title suggests and a surprisingly gritty depiction of war – all shot through with humour and set against an idealised English Edwardian childhood. I found it compelling to watch, but did feel that it fell away a bit in the middle.
The movie is available as a region 1 DVD in the Universal Backlot series, as well as a region 2 Spanish DVD. There is also a region 1 box set which includes it, the Gary Cooper Collection. I don’t know what the quality of any of these DVD releases is like, as I saw the movie on the Sky Classics satellite TV station in the UK, which showed a beautiful, sharp print.
My review will inevitably be full of spoilers, and this is a film where the plot twists are important to the effect – including the shocks in the opening scene – so, if you fancy watching it, I’d suggest doing so before you read on.
Most of the story, scripted by Wellman’s A Star Is Born co-writer Robert Carson, unfolds in flashback, after its haunting, mysterious opening sequence. A relief troop of French legionnaires arrive at a fort in the Sahara desert, which at first glance appears to be fully manned, with a soldier at every parapet. However, the commander, Major de Beaujolais (James Stephenson), quickly realises that every one of these men is dead. The plot thickens as a bugler who he sends in to investigate disappears – as do two dead men. Shortly afterwards, the fort goes up in flames. The rest of the film leads back to a tragic climax where this scene is replayed, but this time we understand why it is all happening. For anyone who wants to go carefully through the plot and work out exactly what has happened point by point, here is a link to the exhaustive account at www.filmsite.org, which I have found very useful.
There had already been a successful silent film of Beau Geste (1926) starring Ronald Colman as Beau, and I’ve seen suggestions that Wellman’s film is in effect a frame-by-frame remake. I hoped to see the earlier film to compare the two, but it isn’t on DVD and proved unwatchable on Youtube. However, some key scenes have been uploaded to the TCM website in reasonable quality, so I was able to see these, and there are clear differences between the two versions. In the opening sequence, there is some tightening up – ironically, the silent version is the more wordy, with title cards showing the Major urging a dead man on one of the turrets to smarten himself up and take his pipe out of his mouth. Wellman’s version spares us this laborious black humour, just allowing the Major to take in the fact that the men are all dead with one long sweep of the camera. (The cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout is stunning throughout.)
The story then goes back in time 15 years, and moves to a country estate in England, Brandon Abbas. The kindly Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher) has taken in three orphaned boys, the Geste brothers, Beau, John and Digby, and is bringing them up alongside her ward, Isobel, and her own son, Gussie. (The young Beau is played by Donald O’Connor, who went on to have a successful career in musicals.) The children are shown playing some games of make-believe – one where John is given a “Viking’s funeral” by a toy ship being burnt, and another where Beau takes the role of King Arthur and hides in a suit of armour. The childhood ship burning scene foreshadows later events – a plot device that Wellman and Carson used again in their following film, The Light That Failed (1939), which has many similarities with Beau Geste.
We then move forward in time again and Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston at last appear as devoted brothers Beau, John and Digby, with Susan Hayward in a small early role as the adult Isobel, sweetheart of John. Cooper had played a number of similarly noble roles as soldiers and legionnaires, and had indeed already starred in a lost silent version of another of PC Wren’s tales, Beau Sabreur (1928). (A brief trailer does survive, though I haven’t seen it.) He is great in most of the film, but by this stage he was in his late 30s and rather old for these early scenes as a ward still living at home, as well as sounding very American. I was slightly surprised by this, as both his parents were English and the young Cooper spent several years at an English public school (Dunstable), so I was fully expecting a perfect clipped accent. But presumably he either couldn’t do it or decided against – maybe it wouldn’t have gone with his all-American image. “Aren’t you a little old for these games?” demands Gussie (GP Huntley), as Beau chases about with an antique sword in a failed bid to catch a mouse, and, looking at Cooper’s 38-year-old face, you have to agree. (Having said that, the sequence with the mouse is rather sweet and very characteristic Wellman humour.)
The Edwardian idyll comes to an end when a great jewel, the ‘Blue Water’ sapphire, is stolen from Brandon Abbas, and suspicion is cast on the three Geste brothers. Each of them in turn runs off to join the French Foreign Legion, and they all land up at Fort Zinderneuf in the Sahara desert, where they find themselves being bullied by a sadistic sergeant, Sgt Markoff (Brian Donlevy). In the original book this character was French, but he was changed to a Russian for this version of the film to avoid causing offence in France. I have to say that I find Donlevy rather over the top and also think there are possibly too many scenes of him shouting at the men or falling out with his kindly superior officer, Lieutenant Martin (Harvey Stephens). For me, the main attraction of this section of the film is the brotherly love between the three Gestes – their jokey relationship in between the demands of war is reminiscent of the two boys from the same hometown in Wellman’s silent masterpiece Wings. After a while Digby is sent away to another fort and just Beau and John are left.
The mood darkens when Lieut Martin dies and Markoff takes over command. The soldiers plot a mutiny against him, but Beau and John refuse to join in, insisting that they must stay true to their duty – and the whole idea of a mutiny is abruptly forgotten when the fort is attacked by an Arab army. The Arabs in this film have no individuality, but are just an enemy army attacking in waves and seen shooting or being shot from their horses, as with the “Indians” in Westerns of the period. It is also never clear, at least to me, what the war is that the Legionnaires are fighting and why it is so vital to hold this fort.
The greatest sequence of the film, apart from the opening scene, is the desperate battle against the Arabs. It soon becomes clear that the Legionnaires are hopelessly outnumbered and that probably all of them will die – but they still go on fighting, urged on by the increasingly manic Markoff, who seems to have become a personification of war. As ever more men fall, he picks up their bodies and wedges them against the parapets to make it look as if he still has a full army – and he also insists that the few remaining men blow a bugle and laugh loudly to make it seem to the surrounding enemy as if there are more of them there. Cooper has very few lines all through the battle scene, but expresses the horror of it through his eyes – there are many close-ups of him and his face fully registers the death all around him.
This whole long section of the film has the intensity of a nightmare, with the greatest shock coming when Beau himself is killed. I really should have seen this coming, as the character had been “marked for death” more than once – first by saying in that early scene that he would like a Viking’s funeral when his time comes, and then by handing a letter to his brother John “in case anything happens”. But somehow I didn’t expect it, probably because I had never seen a film where Gary Cooper dies – he is an actor who seems to be indestructible, somehow. So to see him lying in Ray Milland’s arms, whispering “I haven’t got much breath” came as a jolt. His death scene is moving and has stuck in my mind, again like the death scene in Wings.
Beau gets his Viking’s funeral, courtesy of Digby, who returns just in time to burn the fort down before being killed himself. At the very end of the film, John, the only survivor of the three, goes home to Isobel and the mystery of the stolen jewel is revealed – in fact Lady Patricia had secretly sold it years earlier, without telling her estranged husband, and replaced it with a replica. Beau staged the robbery in order to avoid her action being exposed. “Beau Geste? Gallant gesture. We didn’t name him wrongly, did we?” she says tearfully. I was surprised by this revelation at first viewing of the film, but it is hard to care too much about the jewel, real or fake, when you have just seen all those men die. The film’s title really goes beyond the jewel mystery, as the whole defence of the fort is a gallant but doomed gesture, where the Legionnaires “win” but end up dead on the parapets.