The Light That Failed (William A Wellman, 1939)

Made the same year as Wellman’s great Beau Geste, this lesser-known drama, sadly not on DVD as yet, is another wildly noble and compelling period melodrama adapted from a novel by an imperialist author, Kipling.  There was clearly a demand for such films in 1939, in the early days of the Second World War. Once again, the story ranges between England and wars in deserts, in this case the Sudan. However, in this film much of the drama takes place within the four walls of an 1880s London flat, framed by battle sequences at the start and end.

Anybody watching in search of war scenes might be surprised by just how much of the film is made up of Ronald Colman fighting his own private battle behind closed doors. Colman stars as Dick Heldar, an artist tormented by unrequited love for a fellow-painter, and struggling to hold on to his failing sight long enough to complete his masterpiece, a portrait of poor Cockney girl Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino).  I don’t think the film stands up as well as Beau Geste, but it does have powerful performances by both Colman and Ida Lupino, as well as atmospheric, shadowy black-and-white cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, with the pictures flickering in and out of focus as Heldar’s sight fades.

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Beau Geste ( William A Wellman,1939)

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.

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