(director: William A. Wellman; screenwriters: Robert Carson/based on the novel by P. C. Wren; cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl; editor: Thomas Scott; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Gary Cooper (Michael “Beau” Geste), Ray Milland (John Geste), Robert Preston (Digby Geste), Brian Donlevy (Sergeant Markoff), Susan Hayward (Isobel Rivers), J. Carrol Naish (Rasinoff), Albert Dekker (Schwartz), Broderick Crawford (Hank Miller), Heather Thatcher (Lady Patricia Brandon), James Stephenson(Maj. Henri de Beaujolais), Harvey Stephens(Lt. Martin), Donald O’Connor (Beau as a kid), Billy Cook (John as a kid), David Holt (Digby as a kid), G. P. Huntley (Augustus Brandon); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William A. Wellman; Paramount; 1939)
“Dashing fantasy schoolboy romantic adventure tale.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Dashing fantasy schoolboy romantic adventure tale on brotherhood, written by Robert Carson and based on the 1924 novel by English soldier/author P. C. Wren. This is a remake of the excellent 1926 silent original starring Ronald Colman. There was an awful third version in 1966, that’s best ignored. Director William A. Wellman (“Wings”/”A Star is Born”/”Yellow Sky”)keeps things spirited, and presents an amazing opening scene in the Sahara at a Foreign Legion fort. That leads to a flashback to explain things. Buttercup Valley, near Yuma, subs for the Sahara.
The pic openswith a quote from an Arab proverb: “The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon, but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars and endures like the word of the prophet.“
Foreign Legion Major Henri de Beaujolais (James Stephenson) and his Sahara desert troops have been summoned to add support at Fort Zinderneuf from an Arab attack, but mysteriously find no soldiers still alive but their corpses still at their station. On the body of Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy), the Major finds a note whereby he confesses to the theft of the valuable Blue Water saffire in England.
We flashback to fifteen years earlier at Brandon manor, England, and kid brothers Beau Geste (Donald O’Connor), John (Billy Cook), and Digby (David Holt) are playing military games with the oldest, Beau, the leader. They are orphans raised to a life of privilege by the kindly Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher), their aunt, who uses the inheritance from the estate to support the children but is in conflict with the boys’ uncle, her estranged husband, Sir Hector Brandon, who wants the inheritance for his high lifestyle of world travel. There’s another flashback forward of fifteen years later, when the brothers are young adults and John Geste (Ray Milland) is in love with his Aunt Patricia’s piano playing pretty ward Isobel (Susan Hayward). When the boys are told that Uncle Hector will be arriving to take the prized sapphire, the Blue Water, they ask for a last look at it. But the lights go off and the jewel mysteriously disappears. Beau splits the next day leaving a note that he stole the jewel. Digby (Robert Preston) and John also split to join Beau, guessing right that he joined the Foreign Legion. The three brothers find themselves at a fort in Saida, and are under the training command of the sadistic former Russian soldier Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). When the weasel Rasinoff (J. Carrol Naish), a known thief, overhears the brothers talk about a jewel theft they were involved in, he’s forced to tell this to Markoff when he fails to steal the jewel from Beau and is exposed. The corrupt Markoff schemes to partner with Rasinoff to get the jewel and splits the brothers up, taking Beau and John with him to Fort Zinderneuf while Digby remains at the main fort with Major Beaujolais. When the fair-minded Lt. Martin (Harvey Stephens) dies of a fever, the ruthless Markoff takes command of the fort. This leads to a planned mutiny by the men, but with the sneaky Rasinoff telling Markoff about the mutiny it’s foiled. Before Markoff can punish the traitors with the firing squad, there’s a massive attack by the Arabs. The Legionnaires repel the first attack, but in the later attacks Beau is fatally shot and most of the garrison is killed. Before Beau dies, the reinforcements arrive and bugler Digby is the first on the scene to enter the fort. Previously Beau had John place his confession note on the jewel robbery in Markoff’s hand and orders John to escape and return to England with another note for Aunt Pat. Digby burns down the fort to give Beau a Viking funeral, something he always craved. The surviving brothers reunite and run across the Arabs in the desert, where Digby is killed in battle. John eventually reaches Brandon manor and finds Isobel waiting for him. We learn in the note, that Beau as a child was hiding in a knight’s armor suit and saw his Aunt sell the sapphire to support her charges and then she replaced it with a fake. The noble Beau stole the fake so his Aunt could be free of Sir Hector for good, and without him accusing her of swindling him out of his money.
Though hardly believable, it was a fun story about self-sacrifice and honor. There’s a great performance by Donlevy as the sergeant no one would ever want, and Cooper is quite good as the taciturn but forceful hero. While J. Carrol Naish plays a worm that even Peter Lorre couldn’t have played better.
REVIEWED ON 10/15/2011 GRADE: A-