Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beau Geste (1939)

In a time when fighting in foreign battles on different continents had a sense of romance to it stories like the one shared in Beau Geste made for successful movies. Starring a cast of multiple actors who one day would in time each win Academy Awards for their craft comes a picture about the hell of being a soldier and the comradery of brotherhood. Gary Cooper headlines a film based around desert warfare, which we have seen him do before in The Lives of a Bagel Lancer, on his way to becoming one of the better leading men in all of Hollywood.

Beau Geste is an adventure/drama of three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion and how their enduring brotherhood allows them to look after each other even through the most threatening and darkest times. Brothers Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Patternson), and John (Ray Milland) share the strongest of bonds as the orphaned children in the care of a wealthy family, but when one of them steal the final remnant of the family’s legacy in fear that it was to be sold off and lost all three brothers run away to join the French Foreign Legion to save the family from shame. While serving the three hope to bide their time until they can return home and return the gem, until Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) catches wind on their secret and make their service time hell for them, including separating the brothers. Markoff’s superiority complex leads to a blood bath of a battle that dooms all his soldiers, leaving John as the only survivor to return Blue Water to his family and honoring his fallen brothers, just as they have done all of their lives.

At the core of the picture in the sense that brotherhood stands strongest amongst men, and the comradery shared between Cooper, Millard, and Preston is one manifested throughout the film. Apart from the three as family, their service during the desert battle is complicated by the cracked sergeant that rules over them, played menacingly by Brian Donlevy. In a way, the service in the legion finds its way to being the most dramatic points of the picture as the blood-is-thicker-than-water aspect is shared by the brothers who joined the legion in heart to save their adopted family. The battle with the deadly tribe stands secondary to the battle within the walls between the sergeant and the men that serve underneath him, reinforcing all the more the aspect that the brothers need to look out for each other.

This black and white desert war film is wonderfully shot creating a sense of claustrophobia as much of the tale within the legion take place within a small fortress’ walls while the soldiers die one by one in battle. The scenes within the barracks and even the wealthy house, appearing only for a short period at the start and end of the picture, use shadows and great castings of light to add depth to the frame in what could otherwise be very flat space for the movie. William A. Wellman being well traveled director utilizes his skill and understanding form his decades of experience to make a larger film from the smaller places that are used in the picture. He creates well the ideas and creative reveals that properly introduce scenes and places of the picture to get across the specific details needed to heighten the drama of the story.

With a feature that conveys drama within a war picture, the story of Beau Geste begins ingeniously with a mystery that unfolds later on in the picture. The way the film is introduced is with a cold opening of the fortress with a troop of legionaries discovering its lifeless bodies with no explanationand we, the audience, spend the entire story back up to to this very point. This exposition works very well in creating a depth to the curiosity of the picture that otherwise would be much flatter if shared simply linearly.

Apart from sharing the events twice, both times the events are shared from two very different angles. First is manifested from the ranking officer outside the fort, then as the story of the brothers unfold over the entire picture near the end of the picture we revisit the scene from the eyes of Digby, whom we have now been introduced to, and become attached to in discovering the demise of his brothers’ company. This creative writing further draws the audience into the plot and attachment towards the brothers and their story while allowing the audience to gain curiosity connecting the dots of what they saw in the film’s opening scene.

The picture would open as a large hit as proven by its box office numbers for Paramount. As a remake to a silent film of the same name, the premiere featured the first reel of the original silent film that inspired this remake to play before this version began. This was intended to manifest both origin of the inspiration to this feature and how far cinema had come since 1926, when the silent version was released. Unfortunately critics found this gesture unnecessarily time consuming being forced to watch a peace of the old feature. The first reel of the silent picture also proved the visible similaritiesin the two films making Wellman appear to just have stolen ideas shot for shot from the silent original. This resulted in poorer reviews than wished by the studios when they originally created this idea, but it would not tarnish the enjoyment audiences received form the picture of Beau Geste itself after the premiere.

One lucky audience would be treated, perhaps by mistake, to a a special suprise when at a screening of Beau Geste a rough cut of the much anticipated Civil War era epic Gone with the Wind was played. This proved to be the first screen of the one of cinema’s greatest films as the unsuspecting theatergoers were treated to preview of the David O. Selznick feature.

Milland, Cooper, and Preston as three brothers in the Legion.
Apart from the performances of Cooper and Milland, the film featured Susan Hayward, as Milland’s love interest, and Broderick Crawford as a fellow soldier in prominent roles. Each of these four actors would in the future would go on to win Academy Awards for leading roles, marking the very first time in cinema history a picture shared a cast that would be so decorated, even if it would be in the future. As for awards for this picture, Brian Donlevy’s performance as the crazed and complicated superior in Sergeant Markoff would garner the actor a nomination for best supporting actor. It proves to be a well-deserved nod for a complex enactment by the actor who played well a villain.

Beau Geste would be one of many successful pictures out of this year for Hollywood and stands very much enjoyed by contemporary audiences as a fine drama and desert war picture with a protagonist that can be likened many later complex sergeants in military films enjoyed years later in Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now.  The romance of serving in battles would fade in the coming years as war was breaking in Europe and American would eventually see their own serve in years to come. Beau Geste would continue to stand a fine picture, one of just a few that would be honored with even their own US postage stamp celebrating its place in Hollywood history.

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