“BEAU GESTE” (1939) Review
After watching the 1935 movie, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, I learned that Paramount Pictures had plans to release a series of movies with an imperial setting that featured Henry Hathaway as director and Gary Cooper as star. Following the 1935 film, the next movie on their list proved to be “BEAU GESTE”, a remake of the 1926 adaptation of P.C. Wren’s adventure novel.
“BEAU GESTE” opens with a mystery. A company of French Foreign Legionnaires arrive at one of their outposts, Fort Zinderneuf after receiving word that it had been attacked by Tuareg tribesmen. At first, the fort seems occupied. But a closer inspection by Major Henri de Beaujolais, commander of the relief column, reveals dead bodies mounted for deception. Major de Beaujolais discovers a note on one of the bodies, admitting to the stealing of a valuable sapphire called the “Blue Water”. The story flashes fifteen years back to Victorian England, where it introduces the main characters – Michael “Beau”, Digby, and John Geste; the three adopted brothers of Sir Hector and Lady Brandon, their aunt. Also living at the Brandon estate called Brandon Abbas are Lady Brandon, her ward Isobel Rivers and Augustus Brandon, Sir Hector’s heir. Sir Hector, a spendthrift landowner, has not lived at Brandon Abbas for years. Even worse, his constant spending and gambling has taken a toll on the estate’s income. While playing a game of hide and seek with the other four children, Beau witness an exchange that will have consequences on both himself and his family.
Fifteen years later, the Brandon household learn about Sir Hector’s plans to sell the Blue Water for more funds. When the jewel is brought out for one last look, the lights are extinguished and someone steals the Blue Water. All present proclaim their innocence, until first Beau, and later Digby depart without warning, each leaving a confession that he had committed the robbery. Although reluctant to part from Isobel, with whom he is in love, John leaves England and goes after his brothers. John discovers that Beau and Digby have joined the French Foreign Legion and also enlists. Following the brothers’ reunion at Saida in French Morocco, they are trained by the harsh Sergeant Markoff. Markoff learns about the Blue Water theft from another recruit, a former thief named Rasinoff, after the latter overheard the brothers joking about it. Both Markoff and Rasinoff are convinced that Beau has the gem. Following the recruits’ training, they are divided and sent to separate commands. Markoff is ordered to select men to be sent to Fort Tokotu. Among them are Digby and the Gestes’ two American friends. The remaining men – including Beau and John – are assigned to serve under Lieutenant Martin at Fort Zinderneuf. There, Beau and John face greater dangers from mutinous troops, attacking Tuareg tribesmen and the sadistic Sergeant Markoff.
I had first seen “BEAU GESTE” on television years ago, when I was a child. But for some reason, it failed to appeal to me. For years I avoided the movie . . . even after I learned that several adaptations had been made from P.C. Wren’s novel. I also learned that when this version was first released during the summer of 1939, several critics dismissed it by claiming it was basically a shot-by-shot remake of the famous 1926 version that starred Ronald Colman. Perhaps it is . . . perhaps it is not. I do not know for I have never seen the 1926 film, aside from one or two shots on YOU TUBE. And I do recall that one particular scene from the Colman film never made it to this particular version. But despite the critics’ accusations, the 1939 film not only became a hit, it also became the most famous version of Wren’s novel. As I had stated earlier, “BEAU GESTE” was supposed to be part of series (or trilogy) of Imperial adventures released by Paramount Pictures. Like the 1935 film, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, all films were supposed to be directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper. Fortunately, Hathaway proved to be unavailable for Paramount’s upcoming production, “BEAU GESTE” and the versatile William Wellman was recruited to helm the film.
One of the first things that struck me about “BEAU GESTE” is that Wellman projected a great deal of energy and atmosphere into the movie. I was so impressed by his direction that I found myself wondering why I had avoided this movie for years. So much seemed right about this film. Now I realize that the opening sequence was supposed to be very similar to the opening sequence of the 1926 film, but I found myself still impressed by how Wellman infused his own gritty style into the scene. In fact, that same gritty style seemed to permeate most of the film – at least the North African sequences. Not only was I impressed by the movie’s opening scene, but also those that featured the doom and gloom that seemed to permeate the troops’ barracks at Fort Zinderneuf, the entire sequence in which the troops plot a failed mutiny against the brutal Sergeant Markoff, the battle against the Tuareg tribesmen at Fort Zinderneuf, and the Geste brothers and their American friends’ final encounter against the Tuaregs at a much-needed oasis. One would notice that I did not include any of the scenes featured at Brandon Abbas. Although they were important to the plot – especially the childhood flashback – I was not exactly dazzled by them. I find it interesting that many moviegoers and film critics have compared “BEAU GESTE” to the usual imperialist adventure films that especially permeated the movie theaters from the mid-to-late 1930s. Superficially, I would agree with them. But there is something about this film that struck a grim and slightly depressing note that many seemed to miss. The Geste brothers’ real adversary turned out to be Sergeant Markoff, not the attacking Tuareg tribesmen. And for me, the narrative seemed to be more about how a family scandal ended up having a senselessly tragic effect upon brotherly love.
I thought Wellman’s direction was more than ably assisted by cinematographers Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout’s outstanding photography. They not only did an excellent job in utilizing Southern California and Southern Arizona locations for French Morocco, but injected their photography with rich atmosphere, as shown in the following images:
I will admit that I have no memory of Alfred Newman’s score for the film. I certainly would not count it as among the best scores written during the 1930s. But I also have to admit that I found it memorable enough that it remained stuck in my brain for a least a week after I watched it. I was surprised that famous Hollywood icon, Edith Head, designed the costumes. She seemed like an odd choice for a period adventure. After all, “BEAU GESTE” was set briefly in the late 1890s and mainly in the few years before World War I. I do not know enough about men’s fashion or the French Foreign Legion uniforms during that period to judge her work. I can comment on her costumes for Susan Hayward and Heather Thatcher. I see that Head made certain that their costumes reflect the late Edwardian period, but . . . but just barely. The fashions of 1938-39 nearly threatened to taint Head’s work.
“BEAU GESTE” managed to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Brian Donlevy’s portrayal of Sergeant Markoff. And I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance that could have dangerous veered into broad theatricality. But I realized that those theatrical moments were more about Markoff urging the men under his command into fighting mode. However, Donlevy’s more subtle moments really explored Markoff’s venality and what he would do to attain more power.
However, “BEAU GESTE” also featured four future Oscar winners (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward and Broderick Crawford) and three future Oscar nominees (Robert Preston, J. Carrol Naish and James Stephenson). And their performances reflected the acting talent that made their future glory possible. I never understood recent film critics’ insistence that Gary Cooper could be something of a stiff actor. He was far from stiff as the charming, playful and noble Michael “Beau” Geste. In fact, I would say that he gave the most relaxed performance in the movie. And at the same time, he also skillfully conveyed his character’s emotions throughout the film. I suspect that “BEAU GESTE” proved to be a turning point in Ray Milland’s career. After all, most of the movie is told from the viewpoint of John Geste, the youngest of the three brothers. Milland’s skillful acting and strong presence definitely reflected this turning point in his career. Robert Preston, who was 21 years-old at the time, ironically portrayed the middle brother of this trio, Digby Geste. I suspect the reason he was not cast as John was that Millland was the more experienced actor. And yet . . . I was surprised at how Preston, who was over a decade younger than Milland, managed to skillfully portray a character who was older than Milland’s. More importantly, I was very impressed by how an American actor with British parents, a Welshman, and another American managed to project the image of three close brothers from the British upper classes.
The movie also featured a superb performance from J. Carrol Naish, who portrayed the expatriate Russian thief, Rasinoff. I suspect that Rasinoff had been originally written as a contemptible personality. And yet Naish not only conveyed the character’s low traits, but he also left me feeling slightly sympathetic toward Rasinoff. Susan Hayward portrayed Isobel Rivers, another ward of the Brandons and John Geste’s love interest. Hayward did not have much of a chance to do anything other that look beautiful and convey support to Milland’s character. But she gave a solid performance. Heather Thatcher fared better as the Gestes and Isobel’s guardian, Lady Patricia Brandon. Thatcher expertly conveyed the character’s warmth, charm, and steely determination to keep the family financially solvent by any means possible. Other supporting characters also gave solid performances. They included Broderick Crawford and Charles Barton, who portrayed John’s exuberant American friends Hank Miller and Buddy Monigal; James Stephenson as Major Henri de Beaujolais; Albert Dekker as the mutinous Schwartz; Charles Barton as the noble and doomed Lieutenant Dufour; Harold Huber as the backstabbing Voisin; and a young Donald O’Connor, who I was surprised to find portraying the young Beau Geste.
Looking back on “BEAU GESTE”, I found myself wondering why I had ignored it for so long. For a movie that was supposed to be one of your typical imperialist adventures that celebrated European occupation, it proved to be – at least for me – a lot more. Instead of an imperialist adventure, I found myself watching a mixture of a family drama, a psychological thriller and a tragedy. William Wellman did an excellent job of rising “BEAU GESTE” above the usual imperialist nonsense. And with an excellent cast led by Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston; the movie proved to be a lot more.
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