Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Beau Geste (1939): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. It also coincides with the Plaza Classic Film Festival. Today's star is Brian Donlevy.

On September 9, 1939 the Fox Theater in Riverside, California was scheduled to play the hit film Beau Geste along with the short film Hawaiian Nights. After the short aired, the audience was informed that Beau Geste would not be shown; in its place would be a sneak preview of an upcoming film.

That upcoming film was Gone With the Wind.

After the preview ended, the audience was left speechless, though at least one young viewer seemed less than impressed. With the theater in stunned silence, a child named William Ericson stood up in that silence and asked his mother, "Now can we see Beau Geste?"

I don't blame him, for Beau Geste continues the strong case that 1939 really was the Greatest Year in Film History, a fabulous tale of love and loyalty built around a mystery that reveals itself in a logical manner.

A French Foreign Legion detachment arrives at a fort that had called out for help from attacking Arabs only to find an eerie sight. It is a fort of the dead, every man standing guard but lifeless. When the bugler went in to investigate, he too disappears, and the commanding general comes upon a body not shot but stabbed holding a note confessing to having stolen 'The Blue Water' at Brandon Abbas. Compounding this mystery is when the bodies the commander had found disappear and when the fort goes up in flames.

What happened at the fort? Where did the bugler and two specific bodies go? What is 'The Blue Water'? How did the fort explode? Beau Geste explores that mystery.
Image result for beau geste 1939Going back fifteen years we meet the orphaned yet wealthy Geste Brothers: Michael nicknamed Beau, Digby and John, along with their aunt Lady Patricia's ward Isabel and their haughty cousin Augustus. The Geste boys love the military and each other, with John (Ray Milland) and Isabel (Susan Hayward) in love with each other. Beau (Gary Cooper) and Digby (Robert Preston) are loveable rapscallions and know that Aunt Patricia (Heather Thatcher) is facing an economic crisis.

She is forced to sell 'The Blue Water', a rare sapphire and family heirloom to settle her absent husband's debts. Beau asks to see The Blue Water one last time, but it is stolen in front of them all. The next day Beau and Digby leave Lady Patricia's estate named Brandon Abbas, each confessing separately to the theft. John leaves Isabel to follow them where they all dreamt of being: the French Foreign Legion.

They are commanded by the brutal Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy), who learns from a fellow Legionnaire about the rare jewel one of the Geste Brothers is supposed to have with him. While Digby has been sent on a mission with other Legionnaires, the other troops conspire to mutiny; despite their own loathing for the monstrous Markoff, Beau, John and another troop, Maris (Stanley Andrews) refuse to participate. Unfortunately for the mutineers, Markoff is tipped off and surprises them all at night. He then orders the Geste Brothers to kill the mutiny leaders but they refuse to shoot unarmed men.

Before anything more can happen, the fort is attacked by Arabs. Forced to put aside their differences, the men defend the fort but know there will be waves of attacks. Markoff, totally crazed but a strategic genius, mounts the dead men to try and deceive the Arabs, each wave costing more lives. The crisis ends in dramatic fashion, where not everyone survives. The last surviving brother returns to finally discover the truth about The Blue Water.

Image result for beau geste 1939
Beau Geste works because it balances so beautifully the mystery it presents us with its story of these three noble brothers who love each other and keep to a code of honor. Robert Carson's adaptation of Percival Christopher Wren's novel starts with this intriguing mystery which piles on one bizarre moment on another and then gives us this tale of the Geste Brothers, slowly and building to its action-filled and more importantly logical conclusion. As the story continues we are given small moments that show how things came about and explain the mystery rather than having one big reveal.

This keeps our interest because we want to solve the mystery and see 'oh that's how such-and-such happened'.

Director William Wellman kept things going at a brisk pace and it's a credit to him that Beau Geste never flagged or dragged. Whether it was scenes of action and war or of romance or even light comedy when the Geste boys were playing soldier each moment blends beautifully with the film.

It's also a credit to him as a director that we never really focus on how Michael 'Beau' Geste lost his British accent for the solidly American tones of Gary Cooper. However, he is Gary Cooper, and in his performance we see the steadfast, loyal, courageous figure of Beau so perfectly embodied. He, Robert Preston and Ray Milland all work together so beautifully you do believe they are brothers, shifting accents notwithstanding.

Image result for beau geste 1939I will cut Hayward some slack as this was her first film and Isabel was not a large part. She struck me as a bit dreamy but she was most beautiful.

The standout is Donlevy, rightfully earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. His Markoff could have been a clichéd figure, but Donlevy makes him more than frightening. The smile Markoff makes when he puts his ear to the fort commander's chest and realizes he's dead is downright chilling. From the first moment you see Markoff you hate him, and Donlevy never goes over-the-top in his arrogance and cruelty. Even when he orders the troops to laugh it up before the final assault, Donlevy makes Markoff more menacing than hysterical.

Beau Geste is a fine film, full of action that makes loyalty and honor its themes.


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