Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1939. Paramount Pictures. Screenplay by Robert Carson, based on the novel by Percival Christopher Wren. Cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, Archie Stout. Produced by William A. Wellman. Music by Alfred Newman. Production Design by Hans Dreier, Robert Odell. Costume Design by Edith Head. Film Editing by Thomas Scott.
This handsomely mounted battle epic is raised above its genre trappings by William Wellman’s classy direction and a magnificent cast of actors. Three orphaned brothers are raised in the British countryside by kindly aristocrat Lady Brandon (Heather Thatcher), whose manor also houses her related heir as well as a young girl who is her ward. As children they cause no end of trouble, and as adults they are up to almost the same amount of mischief, the brothers intensely devoted to each other, with John (Ray Milland) madly in love with his adoptive sister Isobel (a very young Susan Hayward).
When the boys find out that Lady Brandon is going to give her husband a precious family heirloom to sell in order to help the family’s crumbling fortune, eldest brother Beau (Gary Cooper) steals it and runs away to join the French foreign legion; younger brother Digby (Robert Preston) follows him and John decides to do the same. Finding themselves posted to the remote Zinderneuf fortress in the middle of the North African desert, the boys are distraught when Digby is sent to serve elsewhere while John and Beau remain under the command of a sadistic sergeant (Brian Donlevyin an Oscar-nominated performance). When their fellow legionnaires plan mutiny to get rid of their tyrannical overseer, John and Beau risk harm from both sides by refusing to take part, but that confusion is soon pushed aside when the fort is attacked by a Tuareg army.
The images are evocative and create the feeling of adventure in a foreign land (despite the sandy vistas being shot between Arizona and California), and while none of the siblings pass for real brothers (or have the same accent), the chummy chemistry between them provides for rousing entertainment all the same. At the time of its release, critical consensus preferred the 1926 version with Ronald Colman, but time has burnished the silvery images of this exciting classic and it shines on its own today, a testament to Cooper’s star power and a glimpse at other great actors (Hayward, Preston, Broderick Crawford and Donald O’Connor among them) at early stages of their formidable careers.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Brian Donlevy); Best Art Direction