Filmsite Movie Review
Beau Geste (1939)
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Beau Geste (1939) is director/producer William Wellman's superb, high adventure tale set in the desert - a classic melodramatic, rousing film of the late 30s from Paramount Studios. The film was originally to be directed by Henry Hathaway, and touted as Paramount's first Technicolor feature, but neither came to pass. The screenplay by Robert Carson was based on the 1924 novel of the same name by English soldier/author Percival Christopher Wren (1885-1941).

The themes of the film, involving three Geste brothers who disappear from England to avoid scandal and become members of the French Foreign Legion, include brotherly loyalty, patriotic honor, self-sacrifice, and treachery.

This is the best-remembered film version of the novel, but there were others:

  • it was previously filmed as a silent by director Herbert Brenon in 1926, starring Ronald Colman
  • it was remade in 1966 by director Douglas Heyes, with Telly Savalas as the cruel, sadistic sergeant at the fort
  • comedian Marty Feldman directed and starred in Universal's parody The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), with cleverly-edited footage from the 1939 version spliced in

The film received two Academy Awards nominations (with no wins): Brian Donlevy received his only Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for his performance as the sadistic, horrendous Sergeant Markoff - the film changed his nationality from French to Russian to avoid offending the French legionnaires and French film audiences. And Hans Dreier and Robert Odell also received nominations for Best Art Direction, for their marvelous sets and production values. More importantly, the film featured four future Oscar winners - Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward (in her film debut), and Broderick Crawford.

Plot Synopsis

The titles in the film's credits are etched into sand dunes by blowing desert winds. The film prologue opens with an Arabian proverb:

'The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon...but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.' ...Arabian Proverb

It begins with the memorable puzzling opening sequence in which a relief column of French Foreign Legionnaires soldiers crosses the Saharan desert dunes, arriving at a strangely silent Fort Zinderneuf. [The film was shot on location near Yuma, Arizona.] The mystery of the desert fort presents an intriguing opening:

Urged on by reports of a massed Arab attack, a column in command of Major de Beaujolais advances across the Sahara to the relief of Fort Zinderneuf.

The fort, with its tricolor flag waving, appears 'defended' and manned with rifles cocked on every parapet. Major Henri de Beaujolais (James Stephenson) halts the column, and commands his bugler Digby Geste (Robert Preston) to "wake 'em up in there," but there is no response. After firing his pistol, two bullets from a rifle are fired in his direction and richochet on the sand in front of him. When he rides forward and approaches closer for a better look, the fort appears filled with an entire garrison of lifeless, dead Legionnaires' corpses propped up at every parapet.

When the bugler is sent by the major to investigate and scale the wall, he fails to return after a few minutes. The major himself rides toward the fort, climbs the wall, and finds all the soldiers dead at their posts. In the hand of a bayoneted Sergeant, the commanding officer of the fort, is an envelope with instructions written on the outside: "To the Chief of Police of Scotland Yard: Confession, Please Publish." Inside the envelope is a hand-written confession admitting the theft of a precious gem:

...and I hereby confess that it was I who stole the great sapphire known as the "Blue Water" from Brandon Abbas.

The bugler cannot be found. The major unbars and opens the gates to his entire company and appears puzzled by his discoveries: "There's not a soul alive in the place. No sign of an enemy...They're dead." As he returns to the body of the Sergeant, he explains to Lieutenant Dufour (James Burke) how he found the two bodies: "Up here is a young man who died peacefully. Beside him is a Sergeant with a French bayonet through his heart." But the bodies of the young legionnaire, with his hands folded across his chest, and the Sergeant with a bayonet through his heart have mysteriously disappeared. [The body of legionnaire Michael "Beau" Geste (Gary Cooper) (dead brother of Digby) and nearby the body of commanding legionnaire Sgt. Markoff (Brian Donlevy), pierced with a French (rather than Arab) bayonet, have been removed.]

They plan to pitch camp in the nearby oasis for the night - "Tomorrow, I'll get to the bottom of this if I have to take a trip into the next world." Just then, shots are fired and heard from outside the fort. The column is ordered to withdraw, and "break ranks and fall back to the oasis" - it is assumed that there is an Arab or tribal attack. As they take cover, they look back - the fort mysteriously goes up in flames and is destroyed: "There goes the evidence...How am I going to make a report about this? If I say exactly what's happened, they'll say I'm mad at headquarters."

[In flashback, events and characters in the opening sequence begin to make sense as the story unfolds and the pieces of the mystery are explained. The story slowly unfolds the tale of the three Geste brothers, Beau, John, and Digby, who all joined the French Foreign Legion:

- Who bayoneted the Sergeant? John killed Sgt. Markoff with a French bayonet. And Beau died in his brother John's arms after giving him two pieces of paper: (1) the note publically confessing that he had stolen the "Blue Water" sapphire - a note that was to be put in Sgt. Markoff's hands, and (2) a letter to Lady Brandon explaining his actions - this letter is read at the film's conclusion.

- Who fired the shots? John fired the two warning shots at the feet of the Major. Then, he jumped off the back wall of the fort and fled into the nearby desert.

- What happened to the bugler, where did the bodies go, and how did the fire start? After entering the fort, Digby took the bodies of the Sergeant and his brother into the fort's barracks, to prepare for and fulfill his brother's childhood request for a fiery "Viking's funeral." As the funeral pyre begins to burn (and soon sets the entire fort on fire), he plays his muted bugle in tribute, and then escapes over the back wall as he hears rifle shots diverting the relief column into the nearby oasis. Outside the fort, John fired diversionary shots on the relief column to make it look as if there was an Arab attack.]

The film then returns to about fifteen years earlier, and the story of the orphaned/adopted Geste brothers, "three young gentlemen of fortune":

  • "Beau" (Donald O'Connor as a child), the oldest brother, nicknamed for his charm
  • John (Billy Cook as a child)
  • Digby (Martin Spellman as a child)

While growing up, the three Geste brothers are being raised as wards by kindly blueblood Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher) at her English estate, Brandon Abbas. She also has adopted a young girl named Isobel Rivers (Ann Gillis as a child), and raises her own son Augustus ("Gussie") Brandon (David Holt as a child). As the young boys make-believe that they are soldiers/sailors and play military games together, John is "knighted and given a Viking's funeral" for his bravery. Beau stages a mock Viking's funeral with a 'dead' toy sailor, placing a toy dog at the sailor's feet and setting the miniature sailing ship on fire. His brothers hear his wish to be treated with honor at his death:

That's what I want when my turn comes. I'd give anything to have a Viking's funeral with a dog at my feet and the last post blown for me, if it weren't too much trouble.

Lady Brandon's remaining fortune is based upon the possession of a family jewel and heirloom, a magnificent sapphire called the "Blue Water," kept in a secret hiding place behind the fireplace where Catholic priests were hidden to escape Cromwell's persecution: "This is called the Priest's Refuge. In Oliver Cromwell's time, the Brandons used to hide them here." Her dissolute, profligate husband, Sir Hector Brandon, has spent the entire family fortune until only one source of family income remains - the sapphire. It is "the 'great-great grandfather of all's the one thing Sir Hector really loves. Everything else he has but the estate has been gambled away." The valuable stone is worth 30,000 pounds.

One of the children's fantasy games (of Medieval times, knights and King Arthur) includes hiding in a suit of armor in the main hall of the manor. Ensconced in the armored suit in the hallway, Beau accidentally witnesses and overhears the impoverished Lady Patricia secretly selling the precious sapphire to a turban-wearing buyer. In order to raise money to help support the orphans and provide for their education, she makes the desperate transaction. After selling the sapphire, she had replaced it with a fake gem.

Knowing of the deception, young "Beau" remains silent rather than disgrace his 'aunt.'

Brandon Abbas has seen only fifteen years added to its three centuries...but King Arthur is now a man, and his knights have grown up, and Queen Guinevere is a young lady...and Sir Modred is still Sir Modred...

Fifteen years later, the children have grown up:

  • Beau (Gary Cooper)
  • Digby (Robert Preston)
  • John (Ray Milland)
  • Isobel (Susan Hayward)
  • Augustus (G.P. Huntley, Jr.)

By telegram, the errant Sir Hecter Brandon instructs Lady Patricia to sell the sapphire to pay off his debts. The grown "Beau" again protects her with a gallant gesture to spare Lady Patricia further humiliation and embarrassment. He persuades his 'Aunt' to bring out the jewel so that he can steal it before she must explain that it is only a worthless imitation:

Augustus: Well, he wouldn't sell the Blue Water, would he, Aunt Pat?
Aunt Patricia: I'm afraid that's what he intends doing.
Augustus: Why! There wouldn't be anything left!
Aunt Patricia: Excuse me.
Beau: Aunt Pat? Would you show us the Blue Water before you go? We may not get another chance to see it.

The gem is brought out from the Priest's Refuge on the night before it must be sold, and set on a table:

It looks like a piece of sky that has become solid, with sunlight imprisoned in it. Cold sunlight, cold as the unhappiness it has brought so many people.

As the jewel is being displayed, the lights suddenly go out, and while it is dark, the gem is stolen. When the lights are turned back on, the sapphire is missing. Lady Patricia is angered at her adopted sons, believing that they are playing a cruel joke upon her, but each of them deny stealing it. So she has the lights turned off again, hoping that whoever took the jewel will replace it in the darkness - or by the following morning:

Lady Patricia: I'm very much afraid someone is lying...Whatever the humor or the joke, it's rather bad taste to put on it. I think we're agreed on that. Perhaps our humorist wouldn't mind returning the Blue Water the way he got it - in the darkness. Turn off the lights, Isobel...Whoever took the Blue Water has had his chance. I don't want a scandal at Brandon Abbas. I will leave the box on the table until morning. If the Blue Water is not back by then, of course I shall have to call the police. Good night.
John: Have we a magician here?
Digby: Or is Brandon Abbas haunted?

The mystery of the stone's disappearance is further heightened when the stone is not returned to its case. And during the night, Beau departs from home to join the French Foreign Legion, leaving a note behind for Digby. He confesses to the theft of the jewel:

Dear Dig:
The Blue Water and my blue eyes go so well together that I couldn't resist taking it. I have no intention of sharing the loot, so don't follow me.

Digby surmises that his brother has joined the Foreign Legion for anonymity and adventure: "Where would you go if you want to disappear completely and still have some excitement?" In short order, Digby also leaves home with the same purpose and a similar note for his brother John.

Dear John:
It wasn't Beau but me. Love to Isobel. A sneer to Gussie [Augustus] and a command to you - grow up to be a credit to those two criminals, Beau and Digby.

John must leave his love for Isobel behind to join his two brothers: "I think at least one of the Gestes ought to kiss you goodbye. I've been in love with you for a very long time. I just didn't know how to say it. And now that I do know, I - it's too late." As he departs, he confesses to Isobel: "If I had stolen anything from Brandon Abbas, it would have been you."

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