Beau Geste by matthew c. hoffman

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“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.” –Arabian Proverb

Beau Geste (1926) is not only the definitive screen version of the P.C. Wren novel, it is also one of the finest American films of the silent era. It is Ronald Colman’s best silent film, though its success it not solely attributable to his presence. Beau Geste is a great film for its technical merits as well as for its cast, which is truly an ensemble. Though Colman stars “by arrangement with Samuel Goldwyn,” his co-stars are on equal footing, and no one performance stands out above the others. Everyone involved was up to the challenge of making this adaptation of the classic tale one of the greatest adventure films of the period.

The opening shot is an indelible image of a caravan crossing windswept, desert sands. This is a battalion of the French Foreign Legion on their way to Fort Zinderneuf. Upon reaching the outpost, Major Henri de Beaujolais (Norman Trevor) is fooled into believing the fort is still manned when in fact a dead man is propped up at every embrasure– “the fallen who were not allowed to fall.”  There is a solemn dignity to Trevor’s performance, as when he recognizes his error.  This opening scene is truly haunting in how it is staged.

The major sends his trumpeter into the fort, but when he fails to return, Beaujolais himself scales the wall. He finds the quiet remains of a massacred regiment. The commandant lies murdered with a French bayonet in his chest. And on the person of another soldier, the major finds a written confession pertaining to a “Blue Water” sapphire. After a cursory examination of the fort, he returns to find the commandant– as well as the soldier who had been beside him– missing. Shortly after Beaujolais leaves the scene, Fort Zinderneuf eerily begins to go up in flames, as seen by the other legionnaires from a nearby oasis.
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The film backtracks fifteen years to the story behind the Fort Zinderneuf mystery. At Brandon Abbas, in country England, the young Geste brothers and their cousin, Isobel, play war with toy ships on a lily pond. They are learning to be brave and noble soldiers. When young John is wounded in the leg, he is accorded a Viking’s funeral for the fallen. In his honor, one of the model ships is sent out ablaze across the pond. A thought comes to Michael “Beau” Geste: “Digby, you must promise that if I die first, you’ll give me a Viking’s funeral.”  The scene is rather protracted, but it works. Herbert Brenon (who had directed 1924’s Peter Pan) lets the scene play out. It’s really a poignant moment in time, a Romantic vision of childhood in late 19th century England.

Afterward, we are introduced to Lady Patricia Brandon (Alice Joyce, Colman’s second wife in 1925’s Stella Dallas), the boys’ aunt who is also the owner of the priceless “Blue Water” sapphire, which she proudly shows off to her nephews and niece. However, due to financial difficulties, she secretly agrees to sell it to the visiting Rajah Ram Singh.  Unbeknownst to her, Beau, hiding behind a suit of armor while at play, witnesses this agreement.

Twenty-seven minutes into the movie, we get our first glimpse of Ronald Colman when we see the Geste brothers as young men. Ronald is Beau, and Neil Hamilton (TV Batman‘s Commissioner Gordon) is Digby. Ralph Forbes, in his American film debut, plays John. Mary Brian portrays the grown-up Isobel. A telegram soon arrives from Lady Brandon’s husband, whom she is separated from. He requests the immediate sale of the  “Blue Water” heirloom. Aware of the predicament she is in, the lights go out momentarily, and the jewel is stolen. None of the brothers fess up. As a result, one by one they leave home in disgrace, choosing to stand by one another.

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Though no words are spoken in this silent movie, one can almost hear the sly humor in Colman’s voice had he read his own parting note to his brothers: “Meanwhile, both of you be good boys and try to think kindly of your wicked brother. –Beau”   The men choose to disappear into the memories of their childhood, into the tales once told to them by a much younger Henri de Beaujolais. From him, the boys had learned that the French Foreign Legion was the “exile of the self-condemned.” They are now condemning themselves to this life.

John Geste arrives in the port of Marseilles, the last stopping point before basic training. At the Canteen, he meets two Americans, Hank (Victor McLaglen) and Buddy (Donald Stuart). Also at the watering hole is Boldini (the excellent William Powell), a swarmy Italian in a black beret known for his “dirty tricks.” He is re-enlisting in the Legion. From there, John travels to Sidi-bel-Abbes for final drill.  Here, to his surprise, he is reunited with his two brothers.

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After a conversation amongst the Gestes about the “Blue Water” sapphire– overheard by Boldini– the Italian tries to steal it off Beau at night. Boldini is caught, and for his crime against a fellow legionnaire, the other recruits pin his hands to the table with swords as punishment. This arouses the suspicions of the brutal Sergeant-Major Lejaune (Noah Beery), who decides to break up the Anglo-American clique immediately. Digby is sent with Hank and Buddy to Major Beaujolais’ battalion at Tokotu. The others must remain with Lejaune, who has his own designs on the jewel Boldini was after.

They are sent to Fort Zinderneuf, the last outpost in the Sahara. It is a place that is “often under the fire of the Arab outlaws, always under the fire of the terrible desert sun.” When Lieuntenant Maurel dies of illness, Lejaune takes over as Commandant. The brothers witness the full degree of his cruelty when a couple of deserters are retaken. With his whip, they are driven back into the sweltering desert. For the brothers, life at Fort Zinderneuf is not really life, “but an avoidance of death.”

Soon after, Beau and John are confronted by plotters looking to start a mutiny against Lejaune. However, Beau and his brother intend to stand by the flag of France. “To hell with the flag!” the head rebel tells him. “At four o’clock tomorrow morning the pig dies.” When the mutineers disappear, stool pigeon Boldini calls the brothers over to inform them that Lejaune is already aware of the mutiny. He intends to have the loyal ones kill the traitors. Then, Lejaune will himself kill those that remain in order to get the jewel. When the relief force arrives, Lejaune will take sole credit for suppressing the revolt.

Before the plot can transpire, Lejaune calls the brothers into his quarters so that he can put the jewel away for safe keeping. When Beau claims he doesn’t have any jewel, Lejaune attacks him but is overtaken when John trains his bayonet on him. Beau shows their loyalty to the Legion by returning Lejaune’s pistol. Given his precarious position with the others, Lejaune withholds his wrath against the Gestes… for the time being. “You loyal, lying grandsons of Gadarene swine!”

Shortly afterward, the garrison is attacked by the Arab marauders, and every man is sent out to defend the fort. No one can be wasted. Even a blinded man is forced to remain at his parapet until he is killed. Noah Beery dominates the scene in the defense of the fort as he runs back and forth on the ramparts, propping the dead up against the embrasures. Even carcasses have value to him. The Arabs must be given the illusion that the fort is well-manned. At one point, he even has the men loudly sing the Legion’s Marching Song. Even Boldini– banished to the watchtower– is ordered to join in the forced laughter until an Arab bullet silences him.

Beau is shot down, and when Lejaune tries to search the body for the jewel, John threatens to kill him. In the scuffle, Lejaune is killed. But Beau lives long enough to die in his brother’s arms. Meanwhile, Major Beaujolais’ relief patrol– seen at the beginning of the film– arrives just before the Arab massacre is complete. As the trumpeter scales the wall, John makes his escape over the other side of the fort. The trumpeter is revealed to be Digby, who discovers his fallen brother, Beau. He takes him below to the barracks, and there he keeps a promise made long ago. He will give Beau a Viking’s funeral. Since every Viking must have a dog at his feet, Digby drags the lifeless body of Lejaune into the room. As the body goes up in flames on the bed, Digby too escapes from the fort.

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He soon catches up to John, and after another surprise reunion, the two go off into the desert together. They meet Hank and Buddy, who are part of Beaujolais’ scout patrol. But the four of them become hopelessly lost under the blazing sun of the Sahara. They are soon down to one camel with a very low water supply. Knowing that John has Isobel to come home to, Digby leaves the others behind and sacrifices himself to the desert. He couldn’t leave Beau behind.

John eventually makes it to the ocean and back to England, where he is reunited with Isobel and Lady Brandon. He shows her the note Beau had written and which he had wanted her to see. In it, he confesses to having stolen the jewel. He knew his aunt had sold the real one many years before to the Indian prince, so in order to save his aunt’s reputation, he stole the glass imitation. Beau had hoped his act of thievery would instead be taken as a beautiful gesture. “… in fear and love I took it, and if that has helped you at all, perhaps you will still call me ‘Beau’ Geste.”

Beau Geste was the defining film in Ronald Colman’s silent film career. All the qualities he would be associated with in his later films were to be found in this film. Though he had displayed such heroism and honor in films as recent as The Dark Angel (1925), the role of Beau was his first as a “gentleman adventurer.” This star image would hit its peak in the late 1930s with such films as Lost Horizon (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and If I Were King (1938).

There are no inane romantic entanglements in this film, and the only love interest is on the periphery– that being John’s engagement to Isobel. The film is a grand tribute to brotherly love, the love between men in its purest form. Around this theme, director Brenon fashioned a film that paid strict attention to detail. There is an air of authenticity hovering over the movie. It was, in fact, shot in California’s Mojave Desert. (The producers originally had considered shooting it in Algeria.)
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In Juliet Colman’s 1975 biography of her father, Ronald Colman: A Very Private Person, Neil Hamilton fondly remembered the production:

“One of my favorite moments in the film was when the fort was attacked by the foe. There was Ronnie and I and twenty men inside, defending it. Attacking were one thousand five hundred horses and riders. (They had rounded up every out-of-work cowboy and brought them down to Yuma and put them on horses!) Groups of men on their horses were sent out with water and food to certain spots beyond the horizon to wait until later in the day when at a given signal by radio or semaphore, they’d ride in to attack the fort. The day started and finally, when the sun was exactly right and the clouds were exactly in the right position, you could see in the entire one-hundred-eighty-degrees view of the horizon little specks way in the distance. As they converged on the fort, they were recognizable as riders. It was an absolutely magnificent sight. The desert was black with them, and finally they got to within an eighth of a mile of the fort, and Brenon was seized by a stroke of genius. He picked up his megaphone and shouted, ‘For every man that makes a good fall during the firing of the rifles, an extra ten-dollar check!’ So they came closer and closer and when they were within one thousand feet of the fort, the signal was given for us to fire. And the twenty-two men including Ronnie and me inside the fort fired, and one thousand five hundred men fell dead in the desert. They couldn’t use one inch of film.”

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Though more people are familiar with the 1939 version starring Gary Cooper, the remake is, like the stolen “Blue Water,” only an imitation of the original. My first introduction to the silent film came through owning a copy of the Percival Christopher Wren book.  It’s a fabulous novel, and Grosset & Dunlap had put out an edition to coincide with the Paramount release “illustrated with scenes from the photoplay directed by Herbert Brenon.” Though videotapes of the film have surfaced, it hasn’t been released commercially for home entertainment. Why Criterion hasn’t given the film the full treatment is anyone’s guess, but a version of it can be found on “Youtube” if one has the patience to watch it in installments with a far inferior musical score. Beau Geste deserves far better. It is a screen masterpiece that should be revived theatrically as well as on dvd. The very opening scenes of the film evoke a mood and atmosphere that could never be duplicated in sound films, and certainly not on our television screens. There is something about our first glimpse of the mysterious fort, set to a chilling organ accompaniment, that can never be surpassed. It is a hauntingly beautiful film.
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In Gentleman of the Cinema, author R. Dixon Smith wrote, “Beau Geste is something more, as big thematically as its panoramic Sahara setting. Its elemental themes– courage, honor, duty, renunciation, self-sacrifice, and above all, brotherly love, all caught in the swell of war and brutality– are developed with a strength and dignity as inspirational as the Arabian proverb from which its central theme is taken. This is escapism ennobled.”

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~ by mchoffman on September 8, 2009.

One Response to “Beau Geste by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Lol! I love the story about the riders in the desert – that is a classic! Wonderful article about a film masterpiece, thanks for uploading it Matthew!

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