Beau Geste is a colonial adventure, European soldiers under siege in the Arabian desert. There’s some imagination to the telling, but not at all enough. The strangest thing about the film is the title–Gary Cooper plays Beau Geste, who in some ways is the least of the film’s characters. I think Cooper must get the littlest screen time of the main actors and the film often feels absent of his presence.
The problem stems from the structure. Geste opens with the discovery of a mystery–a desert fort, all the soldiers dead, but a peculiar confession in one of the men’s hands and two shots fired by a ghost. It’s all very Arthur Conan Doyle, except the viewer has to wait almost two hours to discover the solution (well, not really… just the entire solution… from the first flashback, the general answer is clear). After the first scene, the action goes back fifteen years to that revealing flashback. Then there’s a second mystery–this one of great importance–hinted at. It’s not a real mystery because the viewer is deceived into thinking he or she has seen all the relevant action. But it’s of great importance in the end and to a character’s entire motivation. Without it, the film makes little sense–and at the end, there’s a big finger snapping, “of course” moment. It’s a lousy moment, of course, and ruins the film’s already bad denouement.
When the film does get back to the present day and starts toward unraveling the mystery of the first scene, it starts kind of well. The scenes with Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland as wealthy brothers in English luxury are fine. Cooper and Preston have a decent moment together and Milland’s appealing enough romancing Susan Hayward. Both Hayward and G.P. Huntley are useless in any narrative sense, but whatever, the film’s at least trying to be interesting in these scenes.
It lasts only a few minutes, unfortunately. Then there’s another big mystery (tying in to the first scene’s mystery) and it’s off to the Foreign Legion. I always thought Beau Geste was a big adventure story, but the film’s mostly just the three brothers (until Preston goes off to a different fort) and their vicious sergeant, poorly played by Brian Donlevy. It isn’t really Donlevy’s fault–his character has absolutely no depth. He’s a standard movie bad guy, absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever (not even after Cooper observes one about him). The film plays him as pure nefariousness and most of the film’s running time suffers from it. Beau Geste is a mutiny thriller.
William A. Wellman does a mediocre job directing the film, which really hurts it. He has some grandiose scale at the beginning, but losses it immediately in the flashback and never gets it back. The film’s beautifully photographed by Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout, but Thomas Scott’s editing is the pits. Every time Wellman’s action scenes start to look good, there’s a distracting jump-cut. Cooper shoots at the left of the screen and his target gets hit from a bullet moving left to right. The sets are nice too.
Preston has some good moments (Milland gets stuck with a lot of weak moments) and Cooper’s fine when he’s around; the film doesn’t really have any standout performances. J. Carrol Naish is bad as Donlevy’s stooge–probably giving the film’s worst performance–and the less said about the cowboy legionnaires the better. Harold Huber does have a nice small role, however.
Another big problem with Beau Geste is how familiar it all seems… like the source novel was nothing but a creative plagiarism of The Four Feathers. But not having read the novel, it’s impossible to say what went wrong–the adaptation or the story itself. Beau Geste is a monotonous chore to get through, especially as the ending rolls downhill for the last seven or ten minutes.
Produced and directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Carson, based on the novel by Percival Christopher Wren; directors of photography, Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout; edited by Thomas Scott; music by Alfred Newman; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Gary Cooper (Michael ‘Beau’ Geste), Ray Milland (John Geste), Robert Preston (Digby Geste), Brian Donlevy (Sgt. Markoff), Susan Hayward (Isobel Rivers), J. Carrol Naish (Rasinoff), Albert Dekker (Legionnaire Schwartz), Broderick Crawford (Hank Miller), Charles Barton (Buddy McMonigal), James Stephenson (Maj. Henri de Beaujolais), Heather Thatcher (Lady Patricia Brandon), James Burke (Lt. Dufour) and G.P. Huntley (Augustus Brandon).