Beau Geste (1939) is an exiting tale of the Foreign Legion vs Arabs in the desert that was a popular theme in those early movie talkie days. The stars, now immortals of Hollywood history, portray British brothers Beau (Gary Cooper), John (Ray Milland) and Digby (Robert Preston). Of course, English actor Milland was the only one who bothered to speak with the correct accent. Also in the film were famed actors of the time, Broderick Crawford and Susan Hayward. Incidentally, the phrase beau geste is French for honorable gesture, and the story certainly centers around such a noble meaning.
Another interesting note is that in a flashback scene, the British brothers as children are playing a game involving a mock Viking funeral. The 12-year-old Beau is portrayed by Donald O’Connor, later to grow up and star in Francis the mule movies and many musicals, including “Singin’ in the Rain”.
The story opens with a flash forward of the ending, when a French Foreign Legion force discovers the fort deserted, except for dead soldiers propped up at each rifle post. The exciting story line then flips back and forth from past to present. The mystery involves the robbery of a valuable jewel of the brothers’ adoptive family, and the three young men are suspected of stealing it. Although innocent, they are shamed, then all confess to shield each other, and escape England to join the French Foreign Legion. Because of the great popularity of this film, this became a cliche and subject of humorous movies and comedy routines. When a young man made a serious mistake, such as impregnating an innocent young lady, he’d often be advised to quickly “run away and join the Foreign Legion”.
At Fort Zinderneuf in the Sahara Desert, the brothers run afoul of the cruel Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy), who insanely defends the fort against what looks like a battle to the death with the marauding desert tribes. As his soldiers are killed one by one, he gleefully props them up in their firing positions with their rifles in an attempt to fool the attackers. When Beau is hit and the sergeant starts to drag him, furious brother John bayonets Markoff. Then, as promised, he gives Beau the Viking funeral they promised each other as boys. The legend calls for the body to be burned with a dog at his feet, so John lays the sergeant in front of John and sets them on fire.
Meanwhile, Digby, the post bugler, is also killed by an Arab sniper, and John, the only surviving brother, returns home with only his memories and to mourn his losses.