William Wellman’s 1939 hit is the second and best-known version of the frequently filmed adventure novel by Percival Christopher Wren. This 1939 action not-quite-classic features superstar Gary Cooper (“High Noon”) and then-rising stars Ray Miland (“The Lost Weekend”) and Robert Preston (“The Music Man”) as three English brothers and best pals who flee their ancestral home in the wake of the mysterious theft of an extremely valuable emerald. Joining the infamously torturous French Foreign Legion, the brothers Geste encounter the brutal, greedy, thoroughly villainous but entirely courageous Sgt. Markoff (Brian Donleavy), who quickly hears of the stolen jewel and becomes determined to re-steal it for himself between attacks by Arab groups who’d prefer Frenchie goes home.
Unlike other classic-era tales of imperialist derring-do, “Beau Geste” doesn’t go out of its way to glamorize or morally justify the work of the Legion. At the same time, the mystery of the stolen jewel takes the focus away from the setting and becomes a kind of odd distraction. Ironically made in the same year as two similar but superior adventures, George Stevens’ comedic “Gunga Din” and Zoltan Korda’s wondrous, propagandistic “Four Feathers,” “Beau Geste” has been beautifully restored to its black and white glory and is worth seeing for its lucid direction, a moving finale, ans the outstanding cast. Character actor Brian Donleavy’s evil-but-admirable Markoff pretty much walks away with the film. It’s a savagely honest portrait of pure selfish survival instinct that makes this tale of brotherly love and sacrifice work, more or less.