Thursday, March 10, 2022

#2,721. Beau Geste (1939) - The Men Who Made the Movies


The most popular film version of Percival Christopher Wren’s classic novel, director William A. Wellman’s Beau Geste opens with a mystery; a unit of French Legionnaires has crossed the Sahara to relieve the battle-weary troops at Fort Zinderneuf. Unfortunately, by the time they arrive, everyone inside is already dead, the bloody corpses of the deceased soldiers still standing at their post, as if continuing to defend the fort.

What happened here? And why did the relief company’s bugler, who scaled a wall to open the gate from the inside, suddenly disappear without a trace?

As opening sequences go, this one is an absolute doozy!

Beau Geste then flashes back a number of years to introduce its main characters, namely the three Geste brothers: Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston), and John (Ray Milland). All were adopted at a young age by Lady Brandon (Heather Thatcher), who is also caretaker for her ward Isobel (Susan Hayward) and nephew Augustus (G.P. Huntley Jr.).

Upon learning that Lady Brandon’s absentee husband intends to sell the “Blue Water”, a valuable gem that has been in the family for generations, one of the Geste boys steals it, and the next day all three head off to join the French Legion (so that nobody will know which one actually swiped the precious jewel).

The three are eventually stationed in the Sahara Desert, where they and their fellow recruits are terrorized by the sadistic Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). When Markoff discovers that the Geste boys are hiding a priceless gem, he puts a plan in motion to steal it for himself, taking command of a battalion (which includes Beau and John, but not Digby) and marching them to Fort Zinderneuf, where the devious sergeant must fight off both a mutiny and hundreds of attacking Arabs if he’s to see his scheme through to the end.

A rousing adventure that also relates a moving tale of family loyalty, Beau Geste features strong performances by Cooper, Preston, and Milland as three siblings who are always watching each other’s backs, though it’s Donlevy who stands above the rest, perfectly convincing as the vindictive Markoff, an experienced soldier whose greed and ambition gets the better of him (along with stealing the Blue Water, he hopes to win awards for his bravery, even if it means sacrificing every last soldier serving under him).

In addition, director Wellman stages a handful of exciting battle scenes, and the film’s last act, where the mystery of what happened at Fort Zinderneuf is finally solved, is as dramatic as it is exciting.

Beau Geste is a real treat, and ranks right up there with The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gunga Din as one of the finest adventure films of the late ‘30s.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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