Friday, August 12, 2016

#2,171. The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)

Directed By: Marty Feldman

Starring: Marty Feldman, Ann-Margret, Michael York

Tag line: "A DIFFERENT kind of love story"

Trivia: The production shoot for this picture ran for fourteen weeks but involved five months of pre-production

Three years before he made In God We Trust, Marty Feldman directed his first motion picture The Last Remake of Beau Geste, an ambitious movie set at the turn of the 20th century that, while not perfect, was a much better showcase for his brand of humor than his next film would prove to be.

When his wife gives birth to the daughter he never wanted (then promptly dies, leaving him a widower), Sir Hector Geste (Trevor Howard) finds he has no alternative but to adopt a son. It doesn’t take long for him to spot the young man who will carry on his family’s name, a strapping orphan he immediately renames “Beau”. The only problem is Beau has a twin brother, Digby, who isn’t nearly as heroic. But since they’re a set, Sir Hector decides to adopt them both. The years pass, and Beau (Michael York) becomes every bit the man his father intended, while Digby (Feldman) does not (“Beau grew into the full stature of his manhood”, Digby says in his dual role as narrator. “I grew up”). Nobody can resist Beau’s charms, not even Sir Hector’s adult daughter (and Beau’s step-sister) Isabel (Sinead Cusack), who is deeply in love with him. Feeling his son is ready, Sir Hector entrusts Beau with the fabled Blue Water diamond, the source of the family’s wealth, and tells him to guard it with his life if necessary.

The years pass, and Sir Hector, returning home from war, brings with him his new bride Flavia (Ann-Margret), a woman much younger than himself. During a night of heated passion, Sir Hector suffers an attack that puts him on death’s door. Sensing an opportunity, the money-hungry Flavia announces that she intends to sell off the Geste estate, as well as the Blue Water diamond, which will fetch a pretty penny on the open market. To prevent her from doing so, Beau steals the diamond and heads to North Africa, where he joins the French Foreign Legion. Hoping to protect his brother, Digby confesses to the crime and is sentenced to a life of hard labor. Thus begins a grand adventure that will see the Geste boys square off against a crooked warden (Terry-Thomas); a conniving French general (Henry Gibson); a hard-as-nails German drill instructor (Peter Ustinov); and an Arab Sheik (James Earl Jones) whose goal is to kill every legionnaire in the Sahara.

Through it all, Beau and Digby remain steadfast in their desire to preserve their family’s legacy. But Flavia has a few tricks up her sleeve that may just help her come out on top.

As he would several years later with In God We Trust, Feldman assembles a strong cast of supporting players for The Last Remake of Beau Geste, a wonderful mix of classically trained actors and professional comedians. Michael York is convincing as Beau, and makes for a fine hero; while Peter Ustinov has his share of funny moments as Markov, the German officer who tries his damnedest to swipe the Blue Water from Beau (though Beau has many adversaries throughout the film, Markov is, for all intents and purposes, his chief rival). Also quite good are Roy Kinnear (as Markov’s second-in-command), Spike Milligan (as Sir Hector’s senile butler Crumble), and James Earl Jones (as one of the strangest Arab Sheiks you’re ever going to meet). And, of course, Feldman himself gets a few chuckles along the way as Digby, a role that makes great use of his physical skills (Digby’s escape from prison is shot as if it were a silent comedy, complete with pratfalls and slapstick).

As the gold-digging wife, Ann-Margret is as funny as she is sexy, yet as far as I’m concerned, it’s Trevor Howard who steals the show, delivering a boisterous performance as the battle-crazed Sir Hector while, at the same time, reciting some of the film’s best lines. During his visit to the orphanage, Sir Hector tells the headmistress, Miss Wormwood (Irene Handl), the kind of life he intends to give his prospective son. “Naturally”, he says, “he will be brought up with an English gentleman’s attitude and love of slaughter”. It’s thanks to the bombastic Howard that the opening scenes of The Last Remake of Beau Geste are as uproarious as they are.

As for the movie itself, some sequences are truly inspired. While walking through the desert, Digby is confronted with a mirage that pulls him into the 1939 film version of Beau Geste, where, thanks to the magic of movies, he finds himself sitting directly across form a young Gary Cooper! A later scene, involving James Earl Jones’ run-in with a Valentino look-alike, was reminiscent of the ending of Blazing Saddles, and Feldman even breaks up the action at one point with a commercial, presented by Ed McMahon (the ad itself, which features Avery Schrieber as a camel salesman, is sure to make you chuckle).

Unfortunately, The Last Remake of Beau Geste runs out of steam well before it’s over, and like In God We Trust has a few scenes that fall flat (I didn’t laugh once during the entire ballroom dance sequence). Still, with its excellent cast and moments of madcap hilarity, The Last Remake of Beau Geste is a pleasant diversion, and even if it isn’t comedy gold, it’s at least good enough for silver or bronze.

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