BEAU GESTE—-Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston show how to round up your brothers and a couple of pals, break out the carbines, hold the fort, mow down some bad guys and for God’s sake Die Like A Man. Big scale adventure from Hollywood’s Golden Age and one of the many timeless rousers from the bonanza year of 1939, this is the premier version of Percival Christoper Wren’s novel about the boisterous brothers Geste, who seek refuge from the scandal of a sapphire theft by joining the scum-ridden ranks of the French Foreign Legion.*
Directed & produced by William Wellman, it’s buoyantly simplistic, sentimentally juvenile and rousing as heck. Wellman’s directorial panache lets loose the kind of madly exuberant defend-the-fort situation that little boys of all ages cut their teeth on, as hundreds of hell-bent desert tribesmen boil over the sand dunes into the lead spitting from Fort Zinderneuf.
As a producer, ‘Wild Bill’ made sure the sets were elaborate, the photography high caliber and had Alfred Newman whip up a swirling score to complement the derring-doings. Outstanding cast with Cooper, Milland and Preston upholding old-school chivalry and idealized gallantry . There’s another delightful essay into slavish depravity from J. Carrol Naish, scuttling and giggling like a hyena on acid as the garrison stoolie. Fun also in the freshness of Preston and Susan Hayward, both 21, and Donald O’Connor, just 14.
Best of all, and what gives the picture real guts and grit is Brian Donlevy’s famous performance of ‘Sgt. Markoff’, next to whom the Sahara is no big deal. Brutally sarcastic and about as sadistic as the Production Code would allow, this remains one of foremost villain roles of the 30s. For whatever reasons, the other cast members did not like Donlevy at all–maybe he was a method actor ahead of his time? On-set relations probably did not improve when Ray Milland ‘accidentally’ stabbed Donlevy in the abdomen with a bayonet, bad enough to leave a lifelong scar.
Donlevy was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor and the film was also up for Art Direction. Running 112 minutes, coming in at #22 that crowded year, grossing $5,800,000. With Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, G.P. Huntley, James Burke, Charles Barton, Stanley Andrews and Henry Brandon.
*Preceded by a very popular 1926 silent with Ronald Colman (who would star in another tale about the Legion, the 1936 epic Under Two Flags ), followed by a weak sister remake in 1966. Plus there was the 1977 satire/homage, The Last Remake Of Beau Geste, directed by and starring Marty Feldman. Author of the several Beau stories, the mysterious P.C.Wren, claimed to have served in the Legion, but it has never been confirmed.