A Rousing Tale in the Best ‘Boys Adventure’ Mold
DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WELLMAN / 1939
BLU-RAY STREET DATE MARCH 7, 2020/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
When the Foreign Legion cavalry arrives at the desert fort, it’s quickly apparent that all is not well. Troops man the parapets, but no one responds to the cavalry’s hails. Investigation reveals the men in the fort are all dead, but arranged to appear to still be on guard. Except for two bodies. These are laid out in repose. The investigating officer turns his back on them for a moment, but when he looks again, they’re gone. There doesn’t seem to be anyone alive in the fort, and yet…?
The rest of William Wellman’s Beau Geste will give us the answers behind this mystery, and does so through a rousing tale of adventure. It is the story of the 3 Geste brothers who were raised by their wealthy aunt. One night, the aunt’s priceless blue sapphire vanishes. Two of the brothers each confess that they committed the crime and run off to join the Foreign Legion. The third soon follows, hoping to bring them home.
The brothers are led by the eldest, Beau, who is played by Gary Cooper. Though clearly too old for the part as written (he was 38 at the time of the filming), Cooper’s natural authority nevertheless gives the film its center of gravity. When he confesses to the theft, you know it could only have been done with the noblest intentions. Robert Preston plays Digby, who also confesses to the crime. He has more of the air of a scoundrel, so he might have done it. Ray Milland plays the third, youngest and most romantic brother, John.
In the Legion, they all fall under the command of the brutal Sergeant Markoff, played with a gleeful sadism by Brian Donlevy. Donlevy steals every scene he’s in, and was nominated for an Academy Award for this role. He’s the film’s chief antagonist, and when he learns that the brothers might still have the sapphire with them, he schemes with his toady Rasinoff (J. Carrol Naish) to get it from them.
If the brothers didn’t have enough to deal with, there’s a mutiny brewing among their fellow soldiers. Then an army of Arabs attack the fort. The Geste boys certainly have had better days.
The black and white cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout (and Kino Lorber’s 4K remaster of the same) is absolutely gorgeous. The desert landscapes, the lonely fort, the charging Arabs, the warm wood lining the walls of Lady Patricia’s mansion. There’s a remarkable shot, late in the film, tracking with somebody rolling down a sand dune, throwing up clouds of sand in its wake, while another character chases after. A surprising and gut-wrenching moment, rendered even more so by its stunning craftsmanship.
William A. Wellman directed some of Hollywood’s most classic films, such as Wings and The Public Enemy. Beau Geste isn’t a picture that’s as well known. Even among its class of films from 1939, it gets overshadowed by the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Nevertheless, it’s a grand adventure in classic Hollywood fashion, cast with charismatic actors who all do exceptional work in bringing their characters to life.
Kino Lorber’s recent blu-ray release of Beau Geste comes packaged with an audio commentary by author and film historian Frank Thompson and William Wellman Jr., son of the film’s director. The two have a lively and informative conversation about the film and its production. There is also the usual collection of theatrical trailers for related Kino Lorber releases.