Beau Geste (1939)

WILLIAM A. WELLMAN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1939. . Screenplay by , based on the novel by . Cinematography by , . Produced by William A. Wellman. Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

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 (), 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 () madly in love with his adoptive sister Isobel (a very young ).

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 () steals it and runs away to join the French foreign legion; younger brother Digby () 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 (in 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, and among them) at early stages of their formidable careers.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Brian Donlevy); Best Art Direction

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