Nineteen thirty-nine is the year that keeps on giving -- when it comes to great classic films, that is.
"Beau Geste" is one of those movies that has been somewhat shunted aside in film history. People speak well of it, but not in the same breath as the masterpieces of that era.
Directed by William A. Wellman -- who also helmed "A Star is Born" and "Battleground," both recently featured on Reeling Backward -- "Beau Geste" is an old-fashioned adventure tale about men seeking their fortune in distant lands, with strange enemies and even stranger so-called allies. In setting and tone it reminded me very much of "Gunga Din," made the same year.
I liked it well enough -- the story has Gary Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland as adopted brothers who join the French Foreign Legion, with the mystery of a stolen sapphire hanging over them.
There's some wonderfully harrowing battle scenes, and the opening sequence is haunting and mesmerizing: A column of legionnaires roll up on a remote desert fortress. It seems to be well-defended, but as they get closer they can see that all the men manning the battlements are dead. There's no enemy in sight. How could all those men die standing up, with their hats still on their heads and their rifles clutched in their lifeless hands?
But I suppose what really put this movie over the top for me was the villain, who has instantly catapulted to my list of all-time great cinematic nemeses. Sgt. Markoff, played by Brian Donlevy, is a tough-talking, sadistic SOB who believes in whipping men into line, and shooting them if they don't. He has no trouble sacrificing his men if it means winning himself a medal and a promotion.
And yet, as one of the brothers acknowledges, he's probably the best soldier any of them will ever meet.
At one point, Markoff puts down a mutiny and is prepared to execute dozens of men, but when a tribe of Arab begins attacking the fortress, he rallies the men -- even the disloyal ones -- to fight like lions. It's also his idea to prop up the dead soldiers on the battlements, so it appears to the enemy that their numbers have not diminished.
The three brothers were adopted by Lady Pat and raised in comfort. (A young Donald O'Connor, before he made 'em laugh in "Singin' in the Rain," plays 12-year-old Beau.) But Lady Pat's husband, who is absent nearly all the time, has spent the family into ruin. Her only recourse is to sell the Blue Water, the biggest sapphire in the world, which is the family's greatest heirloom.
But the sapphire is stolen before the sale. Beau (Cooper), the oldest, writes a letter confessing to the crime, but younger brothers Digby (Preston) and John (Milland) suspect he did so in order to direct any blame away from the guilty party. They decide the only honorable thing to do is follow his example, so they too confess to the crime and leave the estate.
They all end up in the Foreign Legion, which is a motley crew of thieves and murderers. Keeping them under his iron fist is Markoff, who learns of the sapphire and means to have it for himself. Donlevy gives a great, scene-chewing performance, and was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role. Markoff's signature line -- "I promise you!" -- is used as an ever-present threat to those who would defy him.
If you watch the movie, make sure to look at Donlevy's feet -- he's wearing some pretty obvious elevator shoes to make himself appear taller. I guess he didn't want Markoff to look like a shrimp next to Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, both of whom stood a few inches over 6 foot.
I also learned a bit of trvia: In filming the scene where John fatally stabs Markoff, Milland apparently missed Donlevy's protective padding and really did pierce him through the ribs, resulting in a fairly serious injury.
"Beau Geste" -- which means "beautiful gesture" in French -- was based on the novel by Percival Christopher Wren. The 1939 version was not the only screen adaptation. There was a 1926 version, and the story was remade in 1966 with Guy Stockwell, Leslie Nielsen and Telly Savalas. There was also a 1982 TV mini-series, and google-eyed comedian Marty Feldman directed and starred in a 1977 spoof titled, very tongue-in-cheek, "The Last Remake of Beau Geste."