1939 is often famously bandied about as "The Greatest Year in Film History." Headed by the marquee value of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both at least partially directed by the same man, incredibly--Victor Fleming), the complete list of classic films released that year is so extensive as to be positively mind boggling. Two similarly themed action adventure movies saw the light of day in 1939--Gunga Din opened in January, and in late summer 1939, Beau Geste followed. I seriously doubt if Gunga Din's huge success really prompted Paramount to go back to its Geste well (the story had been previously filmed in 1926 with Ronald Colman), as I know for a fact preproduction, including some never meant to be casting choices (one of which is discussed below), were announced as early as 1938. If Gunga Din is undoubtedly the more socially conscious of the two films, Beau Geste is the grander adventure, wrapped around an intriguing mystery that might have come from the pen of Agatha Christie.
Beau Geste begins with one of the greatest set pieces ever to grace the classic film era. In the midst of the Sahara, French Legionnaires approach Fort Zinderneuf, only to find it housing nothing but dead soldiers. The first Legionnaire to scale the wall to investigate evidently has disappeared. The Commander who follows him finds a note stuck to a corpse's body confessing to a long ago theft. It's a magnificent opening scene, one redolent with mystery, intrigue and a palpable sense of time and place.
The film then, quite unusually and interestingly, travels back in time 15 years and returns to Britain to introduce us to the three Geste brothers, John, Michael (Beau) and Digby. They are playing at being soldiers, and a mishap sets up the prelude to the touching finale that is going to cap the film two hours down the line. It turns out the Gestes are wards of their Aunt Patricia (Heather Thatcher), a woman attempting to hold on to the shreds of the family fortune despite the profligate habits of a wastrel relative. In fact their only real remaining asset is a huge sapphire dubbed The Blue Water.
Flash forward several years, and the Gestes are grown men. Gary Cooper is Michael, Ray Milland portrays John, and Robert Preston is Digby. (Susan Hayward, in one of her first films, is in the shamefully underwritten role of Isobel--more about which later). Aunt Pat receives word that the unprincipled relative is about to arrive to sell off The Blue Water, and Michael asks to see it one last time before it's gone forever. As Pat shows it to the boys and Isobel, the lights go out, and when they come back on, the gem is missing. No one admits to taking it, and it can't be found in the room.
By the next day, both Michael and Digby have "confessed" to the theft and left to join the French Foreign Legion. John, who is in love with Isobel, stays only long enough to kiss his girl goodbye, and then jaunts off to join his brothers. The film then shifts tenor considerably, and becomes a struggle between the noble brothers (despite the lingering suspicion that one of them probably did steal the gem) and their sadistic trainer and commander, Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy in one of the greatest "heavy" performances of the era). Markoff soon becomes convinced that one of the Gestes does indeed possess the Blue Water, and concocts a scheme to get it for himself.
It ultimately leads us back to the opening scene, though this time told from inside the Fort, so that we get the whole story. It's a fascinating little gambit, one quite unusual for a Golden Era film, and it's part of what gives Beau Geste its consistently intriguing momentum. What really anchors Geste, though, are the easy and nuanced performances from Cooper and Preston, and, to a lesser extent, Milland (Milland was still in his too-mannered phase, and rarely seems to rise to the level of athleticism required for this action adventure role). It's absolutely riveting to watch Cooper, always the model of morality and decency, giving just the hint of subterfuge to Michael so that the audience is never quite sure as to what exactly has happened vis a vis The Blue Water (the denouement of course reveals all, and I'll let you guess whether or not Michael is a good guy or bad--and the first guess doesn't count).
Beau Geste is also quite remarkable for its excellent use of location footage of both the California and Arizona deserts. This is a film that reveals the barren landscape as a mirror of the empty lives of the Legionnaires, none more so than Markoff. While some viewers may quibble with the less than convincing use of miniatures at times (as in the case of the Fort), overall this film has a splendid feel for the vast, overwhelming presence of sand, wind and sun that may leave some viewers reaching for bottled water just for a little relief.
William Wellman brings his firm, assured hand to the director's chair. There's nothing really flashy here, even in the action sequences, and yet everything is just as it should be, in that fine, restrained, craftsmanlike manner that was the norm in the Hollywood studio system. The one absolutely incredible aspect to the production is Alfred Newman's rousing score, simply a marvel of character support and very, very smart cue placement. Listen, for example, early in the film how Newman weaves Isobel's piano playing into an alert and perfectly placed string cue. It's one of the reasons Newman remains at the apex when one talks about the greatest all time film composers. (And incredibly this is just one of several scores Newman did that year).
And now for you trivia buffs, here are a couple of words on casting, one about the film as you see it, and another (more interesting to me, at least) about the film that might have been. When we flashback 15 years to the Gestes as children, you may be wondering "Why does Michael look so familiar?" Well, that's none other than a very young Donald O'Connor, years before his song and dance days, doing a nicely affable job (if with a strangely over enunciated and British-accented dialect, something that grown up Michael, portrayed by Cooper, evidently outgrew).
The more interesting "might have been" for me is the case of the character of Isobel. Paramount loudly trumpeted the return of their volatile star Frances Farmer in mid-1938 after her long and successful Broadway turn in Clifford Odets' Golden Boy. Farmer immediately went into a co-starring role in Ride a Crooked Mile in support of her husband Leif Erikson (he was still billed without the "c" in his last name), in a valiant, though ultimately failed, attempt to raise his cachet as a leading actor. But what the Paramount PR gurus were really excited about, and what many of their mid to late 1938 releases touted, was Farmer's upcoming co-starring role with Gary Cooper in, yep, you guessed it, Beau Geste. I don't have definitive answers as to what happened--it may have been Farmer chafing at the minimal nature of the role (though I for one can't imagine Paramount would have fifth billed her, as they did Hayward, at that time--she was arguably their most talked about star during this period). Or it simply may have been the call of New York and the Group Theatre beckoning Farmer to return, as, in fact, she did for much of 1939 when the film was in production. But it's one of those great casting "what ifs"--though Milland (who was third billed under star Farmer in 1937's Ebb Tide) ended up as the love interest in the finished film, the fact that the press releases mention Cooper and Farmer together make me wonder if perhaps Michael was meant to end up with Isobel in some early draft of this version.
One way or the other, Beau Geste remains one of the great action adventure films of the period, one as much about brotherly love (literally) and loyalty as it is about fighting off hoards of desert tribesmen, or, in fact, greedy Legionnaires. A marvel of the studio system, it is a taut, suspenseful and morally astute look at what some people will do in order to preserve family honor.
Unfortunately, Beau Geste has not been significantly restored (if, in fact, at all) for this DVD release. You will notice abundant grain, especially in the location footage. More troubling is the damage, which first crops up in the credits sequence (keep your eyes peeled on the mid-right section of the screen). When we get to the interior shots, things look noticably better, with excellent contrast and detail, but then some at times horrible damage crops up--as in Milland and Hayward's goodbye clinch, when a very bothersome scratch appears for several seconds right down the middle of the image. This classic deserves better treatment.
The remastered mono soundtrack is noticably better, with clear dialogue and Newman's brilliant score well rendered. There is very slight hiss, and the entire soundtrack is slightly compressed (you'll notice that mostly in the music cues), but overall, there's not too much to complain about in the sound department.
Only the trailer (and in fact the re-release trailer) is offered. Again, this classic deserves better.
Beau Geste is near-perfect entertainment. Mystery fans should love it, adventure fans should love it, and, though Isobel remains largely a cipher in this underwritten version, even romance fans should love it. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet