“BEAU GESTE” (1939) Review

 

“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:

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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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“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

How is it that a movie about one of the most famous blunders in British military history could remain so entertaining after nearly 72 years? Can someone explain this? Warner Brothers’ take on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the Light Brigade of the British cavalry charged straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights during the Crimean War, is not what one would call historically accurate. Most of the movie took place in British occupied Northern India in the 1850s. Aside from the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie really has nothing to do with the Crimean War. And yet . . . who cares? ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” is so damn entertaining that I found myself not even thinking about historical accuracy.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, and written by screenwriters Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh; the movie is an entertaining mixture about vengeance against the leader of a treacherous local tributary rajah in Northern India named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon); and a love triangle between Geoffrey and Perry Vickers – two brothers who are British Army officers (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles) who happened to be in love with the same woman – the daughter of a British general (Olivia DeHavilland) named Elsa Campbell. I might as well start with the love story.

On the surface, the love triangle in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”seemed pretty simple – one woman torn between two men. Instead of having two best friends in love with the same woman, we have two brothers. But even that is nothing unusual. What turned out to be so unusual about this particular love story – especially in an Errol Flynn movie – is that the leading lady is NOT in love with the leading man. Within fifteen minutes into the story, the movie revealed that the leading man – namely Flynn – lost the affections of the leading woman (and fiancée) – De Havilland – to the secondary male lead – namely Knowles.

At first, it boggled in the mind. What woman in her right mind would prefer Patric Knowles over Errol Flynn? The latter had a more flamboyant character and was obviously the movie’s main hero. However . . . Knowles was not exactly chopped liver. Knowles was just as handsome as Flynn in his own way and a competent actor to boot. And his character – although less flamboyant than Flynn’s – had a quiet charm of its own. I also got the feeling that Flynn’s character seemed more in love with his job as an Army officer during the British Raj than he was with dear Elsa. Geoffrey Vickers seemed to have it all . . . until his brother Perry and Elsa’s little romance pulled the rug from under his self-assured life. And yet, he seemed damn reluctant to admit that Elsa loved Perry more than him. Reluctant may have been a mild word. Geoffrey seemed downright delusional in his belief that Elsa loved him only . . . and that Perry was merely harboring an infatuation for his fiancée. What made matters worse was that everyone – including Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) and diplomat Sir Charles Macefield (Henry Stephenson) – supported Geoffrey’s illusions. Only Lady Octavia Warrenton (Spring Byington), wife of British General Sir Benjamin Warrenton (Nigel Bruce) seemed aware of Elsa and Perry’s feelings for one another.

Before I discuss the movie in general, I want to focus upon the cast. Flynn, DeHavilland and Knowles were ably supported by a talented cast drawn from the British colony in 1930s Hollywood (with the exception of two). American-born Spring Byington and British actor Nigel Bruce were charmingly funny as the verbose busybody Lady Octavia Warrenton and her husband, the long-suffering Sir Benjamin. They made a surprisingly effective screen pair. Donald Crisp was his usual more than competent self as Elsa’s loving, but humorless father, Colonel Campbell – a by-the-book officer unwilling to accept that his daughter had switched her affections to the younger Vickers brother. Henry Stephenson gave an intelligent performance as the competent diplomat, Sir Charles Macefield, who is charged with not only keeping the peace, but maintaining British control in a certain province of Northern India. It was easy to see why Flynn’s character seemed to hold him in high regard. David Niven was charming, but not very memorable as Geoffrey Vicker’s best friend, James Randall. Only in one scene – in which Randall volunteers to leave the besieged Chukoti Fort in order to warn Sir Benjamin at Lohara of Surat Khan’s attack – did Niven give a hint of the talent that would eventually be revealed over the years. And of course, one cannot forget American actor C. Henry Gordon’s portrayal of the smooth-talking villain, Surat Khan. Gordon could have easily portrayed Khan as another ”Oriental villain”that had become typical by the 1930s. On one level, Gordon’s Khan was exactly that. On another . . . Gordon allowed moviegoers to see Khan’s frustration and anger at the British handling of his kingdom.

Olivia DeHavilland once again proved that even in a costumed swashbuckler, she could portray an interesting female character without sinking into the role of the commonplace damsel-in-distress. With the exception of the sequence featuring the Siege of Chokoti, her Elsa Campbell spent most of the movie being torn between the man she loved – Perry Vickers, the man she has remained fond of – Geoffrey Vickers, and her father’s determination that she marry Geoffrey. Elsa spent most of the movie as an emotionally conflicted woman and DeHavilland did an excellent job of portraying Elsa’s inner conflicts with a skill that only a few actresses can pull off. And DeHavilland was merely 20 years old at the time she shot this film.

I really enjoyed Patric Knowles’ performance in this movie. Truly. One, he managed to hold himself quite well against the powerhouse of both Flynn and DeHavilland. I should not have been surprised. His performance as a sleazy Southern planter in 1957’s ”BAND OF ANGELS” was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre film. And two, his Perry Vickers was a character I found easy to root for in his pursuit of Elsa’s hand. I especially enjoyed two particular scenes – his desperate, yet charming attempt to be assigned to Chokoti (and near Elsa), despite Sir Charles’ disapproval; and his anger and frustration over Geoffrey’s unwillingness to face the fact that Elsa’s affections had switched to him.

There are four movie performances by Errol Flynn that have impressed me very much. Three of those performances were Geoffrey Thorpe in ”THE SEA HAWK” (1940), James J. Corbett in ”GENTLEMAN JIM” (1942) and Soames Forsyte in ”THAT FORSYTE WOMAN” (1949). The fourth happens to be his performance as Captain/Major Geoffrey Vickers in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”. Not many film critics or fans have ever paid attention to his performance in this film, which is a pity. I suspect they were so flabbergasted by the idea of him losing Olivia DeHavilland to Patric Knowles that they had failed to pay any real attention to his performance as the complex and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers. Superficially, Flynn’s Vickers is a charming, witty and very competent military officer. He seemed so perfect at the beginning of the film that it left me wondering if there were in cracks in his characters. Sure enough, there were. Thanks to a well written character and Flynn’s skillful performance, the movie’s Geoffrey Vickers became a complex, yet arrogant man who discovers that he is not very good at letting go at things that seem important to him, whether it was Elsa’s love or a desire for revenge against the villain. In the end, Geoffrey’s flaws became the instrument of his destruction. The amazing thing about Flynn’s performance as Geoffrey Vickers was that it was his second leading role. And the fact that he managed to portray such a complex character, considering his limited screen experience at the time, still amazes me.

As I had stated before, the movie’s historical account of the Crimean War and the infamous charge hardly bore any resemblance to what actually happened. The movie seemed to be about the British’s interactions with a Northern Indian minor rajah named Surat Khan. The British, led by diplomat Sir Charles Macefield, struggle to maintain a “friendly” relationship with Khan, while his men harass British troops in the area and he develops a friendship with a visiting Russian Army officer Count Igor Volonoff (Robert Barrat). The phony friendship and minor hostilities culminated in an attack by Khan against one of the British forts in his province – Chukoti, which is under the command of Colonel Campbell. The battle for Chukoti eventually turned into a massacre that only Geoffrey and Elsa survived. But more interesting, it seemed like a reenactment of an actual siege and massacre that happened at a place called Cawnpore, during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58 . . . three to four years after the setting of this movie. For a movie that is supposed to be about the Light Brigade Charge and the Crimean War, it was turning out to be more of a fictional account of British history in India during the 1850s.

But the movie eventually touched upon the Crimean War. After the Chukoti Massacre, Surat Khan ended up in hot water with the British government in India. Due to his friendship with Volonoff, he found refugee with the Russians. And he ended up as a guest of the Russian Army during the Crimean War. Following her father’s death, Elsa finally convinced Geoffrey that she is in love with Perry. And the regiment of both brothers – the 27th Lancers – is also sent to Crimea. According to Sir Charles, their posting to the Crimea would give them an opportunity for revenge against Khan. But when the 27th Lancers finally received an opportunity to get their revenge against Khan, Sir Charles denied it. And so . . . Geoffrey took matters in his own hands and ordered the Light Brigade – which included his regiment – and the Heavy Brigade to attack the artillery on the heights above the Balaklava Valley. This is so far from what actually happened . . . but who cares? I enjoyed watching Flynn express Geoffrey’s struggles to contain his thirst for revenge and eventual failure.

And then the charge happened. My God! Every time I think about that sequence, I cannot believe my eyes. Part of me is horrified not only by the blunder caused by Geoffrey’s desire for revenge . . . but by the fact that 200 horses and a stuntman were killed during the shooting of that scene. Flynn had been so outraged by the deaths of the horses that he openly supported the ASPCA’s ban on using trip wire for horses for any reason. At the same time, I cannot help but marvel at the brutal spectacle of that scene. No wonder Jack Sullivan won the Academy Award for Best Assistant Director for his work on this particular scene.

On the whole, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” is a very entertaining and well-paced spectacle. Frankly, I think that it was one of the best movies to be released during the 1930s and certainly one of Errol Flynn’s finest films. For those who honestly believed that the Australian actor could not act . . . well, they are entitled to their opinions. But I would certainly disagree with them. On the surface, Flynn seemed like his usual charming and flamboyant self. However, I was very impressed at his portrayal of the self-assured and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers, who found his private life slowly falling apart. Olivia DeHavilland, Patric Knowles, Donald Crisp, C. Henry Gordon and Spring Byington gave him excellent support. Thanks to Jacoby and Leigh’s script, along with Michael Curtiz’s tight direction, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” turned out to be a first-class movie with an interesting love story with a twist, political intrigue, well-paced action and a final sequence featuring the charge that remains mind blowing, even after 75 years.