Universal // 1939 // 112 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 1st, 2009
Three against the world...brothers and soldiers all!
P.C. Wren's novel, Beau Geste, has been adapted into film at least four times (not counting Marty Feldman's 1977 comedy, The Last Remake of Beau Geste). Director William A. Wellman's 1939 version wasn't the first, but it's the most famous. The ultimate fraternal bromance, Beau Geste tells the tale of the three Geste boys, who grow up in luxury in a British estate called Brandon Abbas, along with beautiful adoptee Isobel Rivers (Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!). Their adventure begins when Lady Brandon decides to sell a world renowned sapphire called the Blue Water in order to pay her husband's debts, but the jewel goes missing. Beau Geste (Gary Cooper, High Noon) writes a letter claiming to be the thief and then runs away to join the French Foreign Legion. Hungry for adventure and singularly loyal to one another, Digby (Robert Preston, The Music Man) and John (Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend) follow Beau into the Legion. The brothers' adventures in the Sahara eventually lead them to Fort Zinderneuf, where they fall under the command of a cruel sergeant named Markoff (Brian Donlevy, The Great McGinty). Desert raids and battles against Arabs ensue as the boys try to survive the legion, unravel the mystery of the Blue Water, and return to Brandon Abbas.
Wellman's film adheres fairly closely to the simple narrative of Wren's novel, but abandons the book's exhaustive detail about life in the French Foreign Legion in favor of Hollywood gloss. There's nothing the least bit French about Markoff or the other legionnaires, and Milland is the only one of the three Geste boys who comes off even remotely British (Cooper and Preston don't even bother with accents, and carry themselves like slick American movie stars not cultured British aristocracy). That's okay, though, because the director and his cast build a spectacle that is enormously entertaining. Even though Cooper is the picture's biggest star (and is rightfully top-billed), lead duties are evenly spread between him, Preston, and Milland. They play the brothers' fraternal loyalty with genuine warmth. The Gestes' love for one another is the emotional glue that holds the movie's episodic structure together. Without that, the movie would be little more than a series of exciting adventure vignettes and a half-baked romance between Milland and Haward. Instead, it's a (mostly) lighthearted adventure tale with memorable characters and a narrative structure just unconventional enough to prevent it from feeling formulaic. As Golden Age Hollywood adventures go, Beau Geste is no Gunga Din or The Adventures of Robin Hood, but it's the next best thing.
The movie looks great on DVD. Universal's fine transfer presents the picture in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Contrast is excellent, with mostly solid blacks and a fine scale of grays. Grain is controlled, detail is impressive, and digital artifacts are never bothersome. One reel near the middle of the movie sports some significant vertical scratches in the film emulsion from the top to the bottom of the frame, but that's the only substantial damage visible in the transfer.
The movie's original analog mono audio track is presented in a two-channel mix that is free of pops, hiss, or other annoyances. The track handles dialogue, effects, and Alfred Newman's (The King and I) bombastic score with aplomb.
Released as part of Universal's budget-conscious Backlot Series, Beau Geste is only supplemented by its original theatrical trailer.
Beau Geste isn't an important film from Hollywood's Golden Age, but it's plenty entertaining. Audiences loved it back in 1939 and are apt to enjoy it today.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated