Cinevent May: Beau Geste (1926)
May is typically capped off by our favorite movie convention, Cinevent. This year’s festivity—co-presented by Columbus Moving Picture Show—is rescheduled for October so we’ve decided to honor the annual rite of Spring by looking at films inspired by the great Cinevent lineups of years past. This week Adam and Samantha discuss the silent version of the classic story by P.C. Wren, Beau Geste.
SAMANTHA: The silent version of Beau Geste was the very first film I ever watched at Cinevent. It made a big impression on me, and to this day, although the Gary Cooper version from one of the greatest years of cinema ever is more widely seen, I always picture the silent when thinking about the story.
ADAM: “The Legion is the great refuge for men who want to go where they’ll never be found…it is the exile of the self-condemned—” Beau Geste is the story of three orphan brothers who leave the comforts of upper-class British society to join the French Foreign Legion. Why they choose to do this involves the apparent theft of their guardian Aunt’s family jewel.
Ronald Colman (“Beau”), Neil Hamilton (Digby), and Ralph Forbes (John) are great as the Geste brothers; they perform well together, capturing both sides of kinship: the hijinks, and the unwavering loyalty. William Powell, Victor McLaglen, and Donald Stuart are representative of the types of colorful scoundrels that found their home in The Legion. Noah Beery is the most vividly rendered character, the psychotic and egotistical Sgt. Lejaune.
S: Beery is ruthless, and one of the most provoking parts of the film. McLaglen was notorious for his foul language and consequently got the studios in trouble several times with lip-readers; he is up to his old tricks here. Colman can always be counted on to deliver an exceptional performance, so much so that sometimes I think he is overlooked because he makes it seem so effortless. In my mind he ranks among giants like Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant.
A: I’m slowly coming to the same opinion about Colman as I see more of his pictures. Catching The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo a few years back was my moment of epiphany—he is as preternaturally charming as those actors you mentioned.
There are many reasons why P.C. Wren’s 1924 novel Beau Geste has such legs—eventually even spawning a parody, 1977’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste. While it’s an exciting action story with an exotic locale, it’s the persistent death-fixation that lingers in the mind long after the end. The central image at the beginning of this film has such resonance: a silent fortress in the middle of the desert with corpses propped up as if in ready defense. The impact of this macabre scene to a young child must have been massive.
S: This image is what I took away from it the first time I saw it. The mystery of just what happened there is what kept me glued to the screen then and now.
A: From there, the film drifts back in time to the Geste brothers and their sibling Isobel in their intensely imaginative childhood. We witness them performing a real surgical operation and a mock Viking funeral, sending a figurine off to Valhalla on their torched toy boat further enshrouds the film in a mournful atmosphere.
S: The film runs 101 minutes, slightly longer than the average silent feature, but by no means the length of later epics. And yet director Herbert Brenon packs a great deal of action and storytelling in that amount of time. The story spans several locations, various years, and introduces numerous characters as it condenses 410 pages, but it never drags or gets confusing.
According to Photoplay, Beau Geste was shot in the Arizona desert thirty miles from Yuma, the nearest town, with a cast and crew of two thousand over three months. Neil Hamilton said the cast adhered to a strict military schedule; they were awakened with reveille at 5:30, had a flag ceremony at sundown and heard taps at lights out. The inescapable heat of the sun and the constant sand that permeated everything, eyes and clothes and food and water, made the cast punchy. They played lots of pranks on each other. "One of the funniest incidents was the night we nailed Bill Powell's shoes to the floor," Hamilton said. "Next morning, being late, he thrust his feet into his shoes and started to rush away, only to fall flat on his face."
Juliet Colman's book about her father describes an attack scene which took much longer than it should have. Brenon sent thousands of men on horseback over a dune to wait until conditions were right to begin shooting. Before they started rolling, he announced over his megaphone that men who would be willing to fall off their horses in the shot would be paid an additional $10. The action began, the men rode forward and twenty-two men on the defense shot their rifles. More than a thousand men fell. Brenon had no choice but to wait until the following day to try again. The next day he decided which men would fall, began the scene, and twenty-two men fired and the appropriate number fell, only the memory of the prior hilarity was too much for Colman who broke into hysterical laughter and ruined the shot. He didn't make that mistake on day three.
A: I’ve nothing but praise for this movie but the conditions I watched it under were far from optimal, hunching over my laptop with a downloaded rip of the early 1990s Japanese laserdisc. The image quality was poor: murky shadows, blown-out highlights, and scratchy source material. To make matters worse, the framing of the image was off, making several carefully composed images seem like they were photographed by a rank amateur. Cinematographer J. Roy Hunt’s work deserves so much better. Beau Geste had an appropriately prestigious orchestral score by Hugo Riesenfeld to accompany it on its original release. The version I saw needle-dropped familiar classical motifs, which I understand is in keeping with the original score, but beyond that there is no comparison. It’s like listening to an AM transistor radio versus sitting in a concert hall enveloped by the orchestra.
S: At least yours had a score! My version was a nice sepia print, but had no sound at all. I put something classical on Youtube and watched, but of course the experience is not the same as a custom-tailored score. It is criminal that this film is still unavailable. Many obscure and difficult to find movies that we have shown at Cinevent over the years, like Old Ironsides, have seen home video releases. Not only is this film based on a famous novel, it is an excellent film with a major star. It was the most successful film of 1926. Who do we need to contact about this? The sequel Beau Sabreur starring Gary Cooper is lost, as are several of Brenon's most successful films including The Great Gatsby and God Gave Me Twenty Cents, also from 1926. We are lucky this one exists and it should be available for people to rediscover.
A: I agree, the time is nigh for this movie to be restored. Perhaps on its 100th anniversary? Now for a tangent! There has been one performer in the last four films I’ve reviewed here, so it’s time I addressed that elephant in the room. By strange coincidence, bit actor Rolfe Sedan has appeared in A Night at the Opera, Meet the Baron, 42nd Street, and Beau Geste. Maybe it’s not so strange; after all he did appear in hundreds of films over his 60 years in film, almost all uncredited. However, seeing him in such disparate films from a variety of studios (the freelancer worked for everyone--all the majors along with lower-status productions with Hal Roach Studios, Republic, Monogram, et al.) in such a short period is worth noting. To add to the coincidence, I just recently picked up Jordan R. Young’s book Reel Characters at a library sale which has a chapter profiling Sedan. For some fate brings them a windfall of money, for me it brings sudden awareness of obscure show business performers.
S: I love finding minor players to latch onto and spot film to film. But I have to be honest. I watched all those movies but I didn't notice him until you pointed him out. Talk about observant.
A: Keep your eye on the background, I always say. Hopefully, I can see Beau Geste on the big screen with live accompaniment at some point. The way I watched it felt like I was looking at the film in the reflection of a tarnished mirror. Still, it’s such a well-told story that the emotional weight of the final act outperformed any technical limitation. Four stars.
S: With proper presentation, this is easily a five star film. To the powers that be, please consider Beau Geste for your next restoration and release.