A few months ago I wrote a review about Barbary Coast (1935) which saw the Western trying to survive in the guise of another genre, then the gangster which if you think about is/was an updated version of that genre. It was fascinating to see what is honestly a much forgotten film, even with Edward G. Robinson in the lead, a fish out of water whose the shark that swims with the fishes who are the genre. Staying with the 1930’s, and the struggling Western I came across the sub genre of the Victorian epic, a more familiar film is Gunga Din (1939) however I’d like to focus on Beau Geste (1939) also.
As Richard Slotkin explained in Gunfighter Nation it was the Western in a different guise, moving the action from one large nation to another, which could be England or France throughout their all-conquering empire. Here we have the French aristocracy and 3 English brothers who’ve been adopted into it. Before meeting the brothers we see a troop of the Foreign Legion arriving at an outpost, populate entirely with the dead soldiers who once occupied. You can see they all died in battle, hanging over the parapet in the fort. They have all met grisly ends, that much is clear, we don’t yet know how they reached that fate.
Jumping back 15 years we meet these 3 brothers as children in the comfort of a stately home in the country, playing war in the pond with model battleships complete with explosives. From a young age they want to go off and play war. When a side looses instead of leaving it as that, onto the next campaign they treat the loosing side with respect, sending the loosing side off into the waters, setting fire to them, enacting a Viking burial. They have a respect for the dead even at the tender ages of 10 if not younger. They have an understanding of gallantry and honor in the field of battle, something that we shall see come through in the film. After this scene we see the sale of a sapphire, however it doesn’t get passed the children who hide, one inside a suit of knights armor – Beau Geste, on the surface its funny to see the child hiding. He’s escaping into a soldier’s uniform that has probably seen battle. Now its acts as protection against unseeing eyes in peace time of France.
Moving forward 15 years again to almost the time we first started the film, we finally meet the adult brothers, who are not really English but young American stars, still who cares they sold tickets and I’m not going to knock Gary Cooper in anything from the 1930’s. It’s all happy families in the midst of the England which they will soon go out to protect. The young girl who knew the brothers, now a young woman Isobel Rivers (Susan Hayward) is now the affections for John Geste (Ray Milland). However before they leave the Blue Jewel, (not sure if it’s a sapphire goes missing in quick switching off of the lights. A family treasure’s stolen before them. Unusually before they begin to investigate they allow Isobel to leave, as she’s a woman she’s above suspicion. It’s gallantry of an old respectable world that sees her leave, Leaving only the men and Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher) and the men to work it out.
They don’t get very far before the action soon moves to a desert in Morocco, two of the brothers Beau and Digby (Robert Preston) are now in uniform, they’ve done their training and now ready for to defend the Empire. It’s all one happy Empire out here, and the troops are keeping the peace. This can easily be translated to America, enlisted soldiers living on the fort, protecting civilians from “Indian attack”. In Geste the land around this is sand dunes for miles, they are the only civilisation for miles. The new recruits are about to be introduced, the scruff’s that have made it this far are ready to defend. These include the final brother John who can’t be separated from them for long, combined with a strong of duty to his country.
I haven’t even looked at the broken chain of command, the power-driven Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) who will do anything to take command from the dying outpost commander Lieutenant Martin has died after a long fever leaving disciplinarian in command of the fort. This allows him to work on the men, bearing down hard on them like never before, making life hard for them. Training is over and a new regime has come into force. Teaming up with none thief and spy Rassinoff (J. Carrol Naish) who inform him of an impending mutiny among the men. They’ve had enough of being worked to death in this inhospitable landscape, time to rebel.
With all this set-up we go into a much darker second half that sees the fort pushed to the limit of endurance of following the chain of command. The Mutiny is soon thwarted when Markoff blows it wide open, placing all but the Geste brothers under arrest, they are the only ones with bayonets, armed but unable to fire at their fellow-men. The chain of commands being tested when hostile or Moroccan forces who surround them. It’s time to put the mutiny and prisoners to one side and defend, it’s all men to their stations – about 30 odd. You can see from the first wave that it’s futile to keep up the attack for too long. However this is a film and the Legionnaires must win, at least for now.Each wave represent an attack by Native Americans, coming back with more expendable warriors to fall at the guns of the Blue coats.
As the men start to fall they aren’t left as they fell, instead in a unorthodox manoeuver the fallen are propped up, acting as number of things. A second defence to take the bullets, as decoy soldiers acting as an improvised illusion, the appearance of more men when there are far less. The men left alive carry on, but know that once they fall they’re bodies will receive the respect of the fallen. I’ve never seen such a tactic used in on-screen battle, it’s a desperate move by a desperate man who wants not only power but wealth that’s promised in the rumor of the Sapphire being in the possession of one of the Geste brothers, Markoff will do anything for it. The rules if war and chain of command mean nothing to him. In the far off outpost they are alone and at times have to make up their own rules. It’s up to the Geste brothers to finally remind us of what they learned back home in England, they are the opposite of what the officers above them represent.
Maybe now I need to see more Victorian epics and see how they translate to the Western, see how the legends are created for another empire that can easily be rewritten for another. My exploration of this genre never ceases to amaze me.
During my reading of Gunfighter Nation by Richard Slotkin I read how the Western went into decline during the 1930’s during the depression, John Wayne‘s career failed to take off with The Big Trail (1930), leading him to working on b-movies and serials for almost a decade. The genre went the same way, or did it really? The basic formula for the western may have left the frontier, the open spaces yet to be tamed for the civilised East in the guise of the Gangster genre, lead by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were the rebels against society pressing down on them. A few films were mentioned in the book, which also mentioned Barbary Coast (1935) which is a rare return to the frontier age – the gold rush of the late 1940’s in San-Francisco. Admittedly it was also a chance to see a younger Robinson on-screen, during his early on-screen appearances, this was a rare, very rare side-move to the western (of sorts).
A blend of the gangster and the western, an interesting combination by Howard Hawks who would have better success over a decade later with the straight Western including The Big Sky (1952) and Red River (1948). Staying in the mid-Thirties for now we have a strange cast line-up which would not out of place for the decade, it’s the genre which sticks out like a sore thumb. Until you really think about it, the arrival of a ship from New York to the coast of San Francisco, carrying people hoping to find their fortune in the new state. The genre typically depicts the long journey to the California, add a Gangster with a ring in his ear to make him look exotic we have Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson) we have our owner of a casino in period dress. Enter his new girl fresh of the boat from New York we have Mary ‘Swan’ Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins) who initially has her own intentions of getting rich quick, marrying a man who died off-screen before the film begins.
So we have the need to get rich quick, which was a strong desire during the depression, the rise out of poverty that held the country back. The Gold-rush was a similar (not guaranteed) way of getting rich, something the audience can relate to, finding that gold and starting over again. I can now see where this film sits, so time to sit back, enjoy and read between the lines of the two genres that have been brought together. As in the Westerns the casino game are rigged in favour of the house, run (under duress) by Swan a woman who came to easily accept her situation, yet still being able to see what is going on around her. She’s not your average screen female, holding her own in front of Chamalis who runs the town.
His organisation doesn’t work from shadowary crime underworld of the streets, instead he is able to flex his muscle in broad daylight. If anything the gangster character he usually played in the decade has more visible power than before. With his right-hand man Knuckles Jacoby (Brian Donlevy) who makes that power known around town, the then much smaller San Francisco which is deep in fog for the duration of the film which creates a depression look to the film. Adding to that cast we have a Western standard in Walter Brennan who plays a Old Atrocity an odd character who switches sides based on his conscience. Not the usual character he would play for Hawks in future films. Nonetheless he’s always a delight to watch, wondering if he will have his false teeth on or not, which adds another little layer to any of his roles.
A nice addition to the cast is Joel McCrea who I find to have much better roles in the 1930’s before he got trapped in his B-movies playing the by-the book cowboy which really leave me bored, by his reliable persona. Here he plays a young romantic who has struck gold, lived alone for a few years, not seeing a woman during that time. When he meets Swan in her moment of escape from San Francisco, for both it’s a moment of weakness, finding the good in each other. For me it’s his youthful optimism that make him more interesting to watch on-screen, here we see him discover what his woman is really like as he leaves his home to return to New York he has a realisation. We also have Harry Carey who is always an added bonus to any film he’s in, you know it’s going to be half-decent film
Back in the boom-town, we have a fight for the freedom of the press, which is controlled by Chamalis who oppresses the local paper to stopping spreading the idea of law and order which was going to feature in the first issue. It’s a power that organised crime can control in the frontier more easily unlike 80-90 years later when papers became more powerful, able to expose criminals for who they are, financially able to stand up against the low-lives of the street. That dynamic is not yet in place, out here in the frontier there is more power to be had.
Taking this as a mix of genre’s Barbary Coast is an interesting study of how the Western attempted to resurface during the depression from the standard formula and tropes of the genre which were already established in the previous 30 years. In terms of success, it stands out for being different, the fog, Robinson feeling a little out of place playing the same role except not on a city back-lot which we more easily associate with him, and that’s what I take away from this film more than anything else.