Tonight I attended BEAU GESTE (1939), another excellent screening in UCLA's ongoing series celebrating the films of director William A. Wellman.
BEAU GESTE was introduced by William Wellman Jr. (seen below at right) and film historian Frank Thompson. Thompson shared information on previously proposed casts which never came to be -- Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery would have been interesting -- along with additional background on the movie's locations and other aspects of production.
This was my first time to see BEAU GESTE, and while it was a more brutal film than I tend to like, I enjoyed it a great deal thanks to a terrific cast in a compellingly presented story. This is, quite simply, grand Hollywood movie-making.
The setup of the mystery in the opening minutes of the film is unforgettable, as soldiers arrive at a desert military outpost which they discover is filled with dead men who are propped into fighting positions around the walls. The bugler (Robert Preston) is sent over the wall to investigate and open the gate -- and disappears! This entire sequence is absolutely chilling and certainly a slam-bang way to begin an adventure film.
Then we go back in time to become acquainted with three orphans, Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Preston), and John (Ray Milland), who are being raised by Lady Patricia (Heather Thatcher). John is in love with another of "Aunt Pat's" wards, Isobel (Susan Hayward). Lady Patricia's funds are dwindling, and when her absentee husband is expected to arrive home and sell one of her last remaining assets, a giant sapphire, the sapphire suddenly disappears. The three brothers each claim to have taken it and go off and join the French Foreign Legion.
Beau and John serve under sadistic Sergeant Markoff (Oscar-nominated Brian Donlevy), and while they hate him, they help to quell a mutiny. Just as that incident is coming to a head the fortress is attacked and the men must all join together to fight a common enemy. The movie ultimately circles back to the opening scene, followed by an explanation of what happened at the fort, along with a resolution to the story of the missing sapphire.
The film has a charismatic cast comprised of three future Oscar winners and two future Oscar nominees, including Donlevy's nod for his role in this film. While the lovely young Hayward's role is mostly decorative, each of the men in the cast has moments to shine. The brothers' devotion to one another is extremely moving, while Donlevy's Markoff is a truly memorable movie villain.
Among the supporting cast, Broderick Crawford is a standout as an American cowboy who joins the Legion. The cast also includes Albert Dekker, Charles Barton, James Stephenson, Harold Huber, G.P. Huntley, Harry Woods, Henry Brandon, Nestor Paiva, and George Chandler.
Donald O'Connor, Martin Spellman, Billy Cook, and Ann Gillis play Cooper, Preston, Milland, and Hayward as children.
The movie was filmed in black and white by Theodore Sparkuhl and Archie Stout. The exteriors were filmed at the Paramount Ranch and in sand dunes in Imperial County, California.
The film runs 112 minutes. Robert Carson's screenplay was based on the book by Percival Christopher Wren.
single-title release or as part of the five-film Gary Cooper Collection.
As a side note, it's been lovely seeing so many members of the Wellman family turn out to see these movies! I hope to return for one more screening in this series, TRACK OF THE CAT (1954), where William Wellman Jr. will be joined by Robert Mitchum's daughter Petrine to sign books before the film.