If anyone is still in search of a bit of pure Hollywood escapism during these troubled times, another famous genre that served up loads of excitement and stunning action-filled pleasures (besides the musical which I noted last week) was the adventure film. These films were usually set in foreign lands, concerning the courageous escapades of unbelievable heroism of mostly gallant men facing death in the fields of battle. Steven Spielberg quite effectively revived this genre with his Indiana Jones films in the ’80s, but other contemporary action films are rarely as effective despite being filled with fancy computerized special effects.
One of the finest directors of these early Hollywood adventures was William “Wild Bill” Wellman. This real-life adventurer joined the French Foreign Legion as a young man and later became a World War I flying ace and member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille, the group of U.S. volunteers who fought for France a year before U.S. entry into the war. In Hollywood, Wellman holds the distinction of directing the first film to ever win an Oscar for best picture, the silent World War I drama of areal heroics “Wings” (1927/1928).
But his 1939 adaptation of Percival C. Wren’s popular 1924 novel “Beau Geste” is one of the more overlooked and most entertaining adventures produced during this classical studio dominated era of filmmaking. This Paramount feature concerns three British brothers who join the French Foreign Legion and seek endless adventures and danger fighting in faraway Arab lands. It stars Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston. Famed film critic Pauline Kael called this film “a most successful remake” of a 1926 silent adventure, which featured the legendary Ronald Coleman. Wellman’s “Beau Geste” was nominated for best supporting actor Brian Donlevy and for best art direction by Hans Drier and Robert Odell.
The film opens with a mysterious sequence as Major Henri de Beaujolais’s Legionary troops advance across the Sahara desert to provide relief for the besieged Fort Zinderneuf. When they approach the fort all its men are dead at their posts, and the major discovers a note in a dead soldier’s hand revealing a confession that he stole “the great sapphire known as the Blue Water from Brandon Abbas.” A massive gun battle breaks out and soon the fort is destroyed in a fire.
After a quick 15-year flashback establishes the three Geste brothers’ youthful admiration for playful adventures and recreating King Arthur legends, we learn that the Geste boys live with their wealthy Aunt Pat (Heather Thatcher) and their absentee benefactor Sir Hector at an English manor named Brandon Abbas.
The tale returns to its contemporary time period before the events of the beginning of the film, where the adult brothers Beau (Cooper), John (Milland) and Digby (Preston) witness the theft of their aunt’s famed Blue Water sapphire during a strange and sudden blackout in their home. No one reveals who took the sapphire and within days Digby and Beau run off to join the Foreign Legion, followed by John shortly after. By coincidence, the brothers wind up in the same fort commanded by a sadistic scar-faced Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy), a military maniac who believes that “discipline makes the strength of armies.” But his brand of discipline is brutal to the extremes.
The film’s climatic action-packed scenes, especially when hundreds of Arab troops attack a Legion fort near Morocco, are captured with grand excitement. The wide vistas of hordes of horseback armies riding over sand dunes are captured by cinematographers Archie Stout and Theodor Sparkhuhl and are ever so effectively complemented by Alfred Newman’s rousing orchestral musical score. And before the film’s dramatic resolution, with most the Legion’s forces killed, the crazed Sergeant Markoff declares victory over his Arab attackers. As Beau and John fight on, finally the secret of the sapphire thief is revealed.
“Beau Geste” was just one of a plethora of grand movies that came out in that outstanding year of 1939. Many of these screen gems include: “Gone with the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Gunga Din,” “Ninotchka,” Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and many others. So, you can see how many very good films, such as “Beau Geste” were seemingly lost in the stream of instant classics.