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Beau Geste Movie Review

markoff scene sergeant robert

1939 – William Wellman –

A desert fort defended by a row of corpses looking down from the parapets makes for one of the most unforgettable opening scenes in adventure films. It is the first of many expert storytelling touches that give this story of three brothers (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston) who join the Foreign Legion to avoid acknowledging a family disgrace its offbeat, dramatic appeal. In filmmaking parlance, it is ineffective for a script to be too “on the nose” (too pat, too expected). In this film, screenwriter Robert Carson and director William Wellman manage to give nearly every scene an unexpected edge, a touch that keeps the movie awake.

The dramatic opening of the fort of corpses leads to a flashback fifteen years earlier that shows young Beau Geste (Donald O'Connor) secretly at play hiding in a suit of armor. He overhears his aunt, who needs to pay off her husband's debts, sell the famous Blue Water sapphire to a buyer and receive an imitation to put in its place. Years later, when word comes from the husband to sell the original, Beau is the only brother who knows about the copy. On the night before the sale, the family gathers to take a last look at what they think is the Blue Water when the room suddenly goes dark. After the lights come on, the jewel is gone. Beau disappears the next day, leaving behind a note, and his brothers follow him to the Foreign Legion.

Many fine scenes and images linger in the memory. The introduction of sadistic Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) as he belittles the new recruits features his gloating signature phrase, “I promise you,” a great personalizing touch. The concern the legionnaires show toward their dying comrade Krenke (Barry Macollum) adds depth to the first barracks scene. The impassive reaction shots of the men as Markoff berates a deserter and drives him out into the endless desert visually lays the foundation for the seditious talk by Schwartz (Albert Dekker). The second barracks scene divides the men between those who wish to kill Markoff and those loyal to the Legion flag. A sudden attack by Arabs drags the men out of bed to defend the fort, and they joke between rifle shots about fighting in their long johns.

Most representative of the film's flavor is the eerie “laughing scene,” when the garrison is down to just a few men, the corpses of their comrades having been propped by Markoff in the parapets. The sergeant insists that these few men can make enough noise to scare off their attackers (“Seven is going to sound like seventy”). He orders his handful of survivors one by one to start laughing. The rising waves of their maniacal laughter echoing across the desert evinces both the men's fatigue and their hatred of their sergeant. It is yet another “not on the nose” touch that enlivens this smart, dramatic movie.

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), James Stephenson (Major Henri de Beaujolais), Charles Barton (Buddy McMonigal), James Burke (Lieutenant Dufour), G.P. Huntley (Augustus Brandon), Harvey Stephens (Lieutenant Martin), Stanley Andrews (Maris), Harry M. Woods (Renoir), Arthur Aylesworth (Renault), Barry Macollum (Krenke), Ronald R. Rondell (Bugler), Heather Thatcher (Lady Brandon), Donald O'Connor (Young Beau Geste), Screenwriter: Robert Carson Cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl, Archie Stout Composer: Alfred Newman Producer: William Wellman for Paramount Running Time: 114 minutes Format: VHS Awards: Academy Awards, 1939: Nominations: Interior Decoration, Supporting Actor (Brian Donlevy).

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