Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Beau Geste (1939)
I can’t imagine that when P.C. Wren wrote his adventure novel way back in 1924 that he could imagine the war movies of today. In fact, I’m guessing people of the day couldn’t even imagine the sort of fire power that would go into modern wars themselves. The high tech bombs, the type of precision fighting that takes place, the almost complete lack of horses. Still, the allure of the wars of older times is still strong. There’s a romanticism there applied to looking at a world where men on horseback fire pistols and rifles up at garrison walls.
For that, Beau Geste has the attributes of a pure adventure story. Directed by William A. Wellman (who has one of the more difficult names to say in classic Hollywood), it tells the story of three brothers who are all separately accused of stealing their Aunt’s prized sapphire before heading off to join the French Foreign Legion. Of course, joining the Foreign Legion means seeing a lot of your brothers die and getting shot at a ton by Arabs while attempting to hold down a fort. For some reason in this story, it also involves being under the command of a complete sadist that seems not to care about the lives of his men. He does seem to care about the stolen sapphire, though.
Oscar Award-winner Gary Cooper plays the title role as the brother with the most leadership qualities. Also-Oscar-winner Ray Milland plays the love-sick John with Robert Preston acting as Digby – a brother who seems simply happy to win the respect and inclusion from the other Geste boys.
Although the opening scenes are the height of cheesy when watched today (shots of the brothers as children lovingly playing together, growing up to speak like rich people who have never left their own estate), there’s still a sort of carefree attitude that’s appealing within all the characters, despite the fact that money is getting tighter and tighter every day. With that strife on the home front, the rest of the film makes up by creating an intense feeling of dread and action throughout the rest of the movie. The boys joining up with the fighting forces is a risk and a bit of dream fulfillment, but there’s very real danger, and their commanding officer Sgt. Markoff is as unforgiving as the desert itself.
The outfit encounters a harsh reality of defending an outpost in the Sahara, but the group can’t resist the temptation of mutiny for a man leading them that treats them so poorly. Thus, the Geste brothers have to deal with deadly threats from outside and within the walls of Fort Zinderneuf.
As an adventure, the movie delivers throughout, pausing the internal strife of the outfit with the screamingly loud attacks on the outpost. It’s also got a bit of a macabre feeling to it – especially two scenes. In one, Sgt. Markoff (played really callously by Brian Donlevy) tells the men to prop up their fallen brethren’s dead bodies in order to make it look like the fort has more defending her. In the second, Markoff makes all the men laugh one by one in order to make it appear as if seven are actually seventy. These sound like smart tactics for a tiny group of soldiers being constantly attacked, but the way Markoff goes about it is really, excruciatingly creepy for some reason. What might be a genius tactic in another movie because cruel and unusual punishment for his men.
In addition to the tense feeling of the film, the score is booming and severe during the fighting scenes followed classically by sweeping violins to signal the somber mood afterward. Plus, this is accompanied by the rapid-fire sound of gun shots in scenes where director Wellman wasn’t afraid to let bodies hit the floor.
Of course, on top of the war story is the mystery of what happened to the sapphire – another fantastic subplot that adds the film just slightly into the mystery genre while also being an Adventure, a War Movie, an Action Film, and a Drama. Balancing all of those factors is what gives this movie it’s epic feel – especially with the added benefit of being a story about courage and honor. The title (and the name of the main character) is actually the French phrase for “A good gesture,” and the Geste boys continually prove their honor even under the harshest of circumstances.
Over all, the movie is basically two fantastic actors delivering worthy performances in a story that has both beautiful character development and a ton of action. Some may have trouble with black and white, but those kind of people don’t deserve a great film like this. It seems like it might be difficult for people of the 1930s to wrap their minds around what modern war looks like, but it shouldn’t be hard for anyone of this age to connect with this flick – especially if they love action, adventure, and tales of honor.