BACK-STORY: This is the 1939 version of the oft-made action/adventure film. Obviously it is considered to be best version. It is based on the novel by Percival Christopher Wren. The book was aimed at the teenage boy in all of us and the movie puts this to film. It was one of the first movies to link war and adventure. But in an entertaining twist, the book and film add a dash of mystery. It explores the themes of loyalty, duty, and honor. The movie was a big hit and helped launch the subgenre of the French Foreign Legion film. It is unique in that it features four actors that would subsequently win Oscars as Best Actors or Actresses (Cooper, Milland, Crawford, and Hayward). Interestingly, considering that line-up, the acting honors in “Beau Geste” go to Brian Donlevy as the sadistic Markoff. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
OPENING: A preface tells us this will be a manly movie by quoting an Arab 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…” The opening scene is famous. A French Foreign Legion unit comes to Fort Zindernauf in the Algerian desert to find the ramparts manned by corpses. The bugler scales the wall, but then disappears. The Major enters the fort to find everyone dead and one clutching a note confessing to the theft of a precious jewel. Gunshots cause the unit to retire to a nearby oasis before the mystery can be solved.
SUMMARY: We flash back fifteen years earlier. The Geste brothers are playing naval war with some really nice wooden ship models. They are being raised in the upper class after being orphaned. Their benefactor Lady Brandon is in financial distress because of her wayward, spendthrift husband, but this does not stop the boys from reenacting a Viking funeral by torching one of the models. Beau avows that he wants to go that way when his time comes. Foreshadowing, anyone?
|Digby, Beau, Isabel, and John|
|John (Milland), Beau (Cooper), and Digby (Preston)|
It is still unclear who stole the jewel, but a slimeball named Rasinoffe overhears the Gestes discussing it and rats them out to Markoff. Markoff arranges to have Beau and John sent to remote Fort Zinderneuf where Markoff will be second in command. With the commanding officer ill, Markoff runs the show. His solution to the desertion problem is to send the deserters back into the desert with no provisions. When the humane CO dies with is boots off from a fever, the company plots mutiny. Beau and John refuse to be mutineers because it is dishonorable. Markoff gets wind of the rebellion and disarms the rebels. He is about to force Beau and John to execute them when the fort comes under attack from the Tuareg (Berbers). It seems these villainous ingrates don’t like having a foreign fort in their land. Don’t they want to be Christianized and civilized?
Everyone mans the battlements. Remarkably, none of the mutineers decides to avoid execution by “accidentally” shooting Markoff in the back. Maybe they figure that would only make him angrier. Neither side ever misses a shot so there are a lot of Tuareg horses flopping and legionnaires dropping. Markoff is in his element and sees himself decorated for this last stand. He actually is a good leader and they do not question his orders. He comes up with the idea of putting the dead soldiers on the ramparts so the dim-witted Arabs will think the fort is fully manned. He literally places each man himself (exposing his fraggable back each time). He encourages the men by saying “the rest of the bullets you stop will not hurt as much as the first one.” Amazingly, none of the legionnaires is wounded. The Tuareg only use kill shots. No blood, no bullet holes = this is a pre-1960s movie.
At one point, Markoff orders the men to all laugh to weaken the morale of the enemy. We are treated to one of the funniest deaths in war movie history as the hyena-laughing Rasinoffe is shot and then leaps (not falls) from the tower. By the time the enemy has had enough, Beau is wounded and only Markoff and John are intact. Markoff moves to rifle the “dead” Beau for the jewel and is about to shoot John when Beau throws off his aim allowing John to stab him. Beau dies in John’s arms after instructing him to leave the confession letter in Markoff’s hand. John flees the fort and the movie comes full circle with Digby (the bugler) arriving on the scene to find Beau’s body.
Remembering Beau’s childhood dream, Digby gives Beau a Viking funeral complete with a dog (Markoff) at the foot of his byre (bed). John fires at the relief unit to get it to take refuge in the oasis. Digby joins John. Meanwhile, the cremation of Beau results in the torching of the fort. Beau and John hook up with two American legionnaire friends who have conveniently deserted conveniently with horses. They come to another oasis just as the quartet’s water has run out. Digby blows his bugle to chase off the Arabs, but a parting shot kills Digby. (Did I mention the Taureg are amazing shots?)
CLOSING: John is the only brother to return home which is fortunate for Isabel. He brings a letter for Aunt Pat from Beau. The mystery is solved. Beau had accidentally witnessed Lady Brandon selling the “Blue Water” years earlier to make ends meet. He stole the jewel to avoid her confrontation with Lord Brandon when he would have discovered the jewel in the case was a fake. What a beautiful gesture – “beau geste”.
Acting - 9
Action - 7
Accuracy - not applicable
Realism - 5
Plot - 9
Overall - 9
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Definitely. The leads are dashing and likable. The violence is PG–rated. The mystery aspect makes it more than a one-dimensional war flick. Plus ladies are less likely to be distracted by some of the ridiculous plot twists than guys might.
ACCURACY: The book and movie are not based on any historical events or people. Surprise! I did discover that the Tuareg were not noted for using rifles. That is one of the reasons the French overcame them – superior firepower. The French Foreign Legion is accurately depicted in its cosmopolitan nature. The FFL was created in 1831 to enlist foreign nationals. The intent was to remove troublemakers from French society. Anyone enlisting was taken no questions asked. The mission of the FFL was to protect and expand the French colonial empire, but the army saw action in most wars that France got involved in. It was stationed in Algeria and is most famous for its pacification campaigns there.
CRITIQUE: “Beau Geste” is old school entertainment. Check your intellect at the door, it will get in the way of your enjoyment of the film. Don’t think too much about the details after viewing, it might wipe the smile off your face and replace it with a look of perplexion. For instance, did all the legionnaires die with their eyes open or did Markoff pry them open before putting them on the ramparts? Who turned off the light so Beau could steal the jewel or did he just take advantage of a sudden power failure?
The movie is very well acted. You would expect that from this cast. It especially works because the trio of Cooper, Preston, and Milland are adept at comedy. Their chemistry is apparent. It looks like the actors had fun making the movie. Donlevy is unintentionally funny in his over the top malevolence. His is a command performance. Get it?
The key to making the movie a classic is the mystery that is integral to the plot. This makes it a rare war movie that doubles as a whodunit. The mystery is well done and the resolution will surprise most viewers. The structure of flash-backs and flash-forwards greatly enhances the mystery. The foreshadowing does not give away the mystery, but meshes nicely with the conclusion. The movie also has its suspenseful moments and fits well in the “who will survive?” subgenre.
The movie is well filmed. It was nominated for Art Direction. The fort is a realistic setting. The scenes in the Brandon mansion also give a taste for upper class British trappings. The dialogue is not as trite as in most 1930s movies.
CONCLUSION: I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. Considering I love old movies, I had never seen it and now I wonder why. As those who follow this blog probably know, I do not fawn over the “classics”. Just because it’s old does not make it good and in fact, an old black and white movie had better be damn good to make up for the lack of technology and the unrealistic effects (e.g., no bullet holes, no blood). This is one movie that transcends those disadvantages. Plot and acting can do that. But mainly, the movie deserves to be in the Greatest 100 because it is so fun.
Markoff and a ghost soldier