Although today it is one of his better known films, Beau Geste (1939) was almost not directed by William Wellman. The story of how William Wellman came to direct Beau Geste began in 1924 when the novel Beau Geste by P. C. Wren was published for the first time. The novel followed the adventures of the Geste brothers (Beau, Digby, and John) in the French Foreign Legion. The book proved highly successful, so much so that Paramount Pictures purchased the rights to make a film version of the novel. The first film adaptation of Beau Geste was released in 1926 and starred Ronald Colman, Neil Hamilton, and Ralph Forbes.
With the advent of the Sound Era with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, it was perhaps inevitable that Paramount would want to make a sound version of Beau Geste. It was on April 10 1936 that Paramount announced a new version of Beau Geste would be shot in Technicolor and directed by Henry Hathaway. Gary Cooper was set to star in the film. It was on May 30 of that year that it was announced that Beau Geste had been postponed. As to Henry Hathaway, he was assigned to direct Hell on Earth, a film about the African slave trade that was ultimately never made.
It was in January 1937 that Paramount once again announced the production of a new version of Beau Geste. Henry Hathaway was still assigned to direct, although the Geste brothers would be played by George Raft, Ray Milland, and Richard Arlen. Once more Beau Geste was postponed and this time Henry Hathaway was assigned to direct Spawn of the North (1938).
Nearly a year would pass before William Wellman was announced as the director of Beau Geste. While it had been planned all along to shoot the film in Technicolor, at the very last minute it was decided instead to film Beau Geste in black and white. Gary Cooper was cast in the lead role of Michael "Beau" Geste. It would be the final film under his contract with Paramount. Ray Milland and Robert Preston were cast as the other Geste brothers, John and Digby respectively. Patricia Morison was considered for the role of Isobel Rivers, the love interest in the film, as was reportedly Frances Farmer. The part ultimately went to Susan Hayward, for whom it would be her first major role. In both the novel and the 1926 silent film the corrupt and sadistic French Foreign Legion commandant was a Frenchman named Sergeant Lejaune (played in the 1926 film by Noah Beery, Sr.). So as not to offend French audiences, in the 1939 version of Beau Geste Sergeant Lejaune was replaced by a Russian named Markoff, played by Brian Donlevy.
While William Wellman was known for his remarkable ability to bring productions in on schedule, if not under schedule, this would not be the case with Beau Geste. After only four days of shooting at the Paramount Ranch, Mr. Wellman was already behind schedule. Unfortunately, he was never able to get caught up and Beau Geste became one of the few films he did not bring in on schedule.
Beau Geste (1939) was released on August 2 1939. The 1926 silent film had not only been critically acclaimed, but had also done spectacularly well at the box office as well. While Beau Geste (1939) would not receive the critical acclaim that Beau Geste (1926) had, it received good reviews over all. The performance of Brian Donlevy as Sergeant Markoff was particularly lauded by critics. Indeed, Mr. Donlevy was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Beau Geste also received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Beau Geste (1939) did not do as well at the box office as the silent version had, although it did do very well. Beau Geste (1939) was the 23rd highest grossing film of the year. Today that might not sound impressive, but one must consider that it was released in 1939 when such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, and the all time box office champ Gone with the Wind were released. In any other year Beau Geste (1939) might well have ranked much higher in the year end box office.
The novel Beau Geste would be adapted as a feature film once again in 1966 and parodied with The Last Remake of Beau Geste in 1977. In 1982 the BBC adapted the novel as a television mini-series.
Today Beau Geste (1939) is perhaps the best known adaptation of the novel. It also remains one of William Wellman's best known films. While Beau Geste (1939) is perhaps not quite as good as the 1926 silent version, it is one of the best high adventures to emerge from the major studios in the Thirties, an era known for films filled with derring-do. As might be expected, William Wellman's direction is both tight and brisk, quite in keeping with a swashbuckling film. His direction also permitted his cast, four of who would go on to win Oscars (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward, and Broderick Crawford), to give some very good performances. Brian Donlevy certainly gives the standout performance among the cast, his Sergeant Markoff ranking among the great screen villains. Ray Milland and Robert Preston also gave impressive performances. Gary Cooper was perhaps too old to be playing Beau Geste (Mr. Cooper was 38 and in the novel Beau is in his twenties) and he is not very convincing as an Englishman, but he is so sincere in the role that none of that really matters.
Ultimately Beau Geste (1939) delivers what one expects of it, plenty of action, adventure, and derring-do. If the story seems familiar after so many remakes and similar films, in the end it does not matter. Nearly eighty years after its release Beau Geste delivers enough excitement to keep almost anyone who watches it entertained.