Beau Geste (1939 film)

Beau Geste is a 1939 Paramount Pictures action/adventure film starring Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, and Susan Hayward. Directed and produced by William A. Wellman, the screenplay was adapted by Robert Carson, based on the 1924 novel of the same title by P. C. Wren. The music score was by Alfred Newman and cinematography was by Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout.

Beau Geste
Original theatrical poster
Directed byWilliam A. Wellman
Produced byWilliam A. Wellman
Screenplay byRobert Carson
Based onBeau Geste
by P. C. Wren
StarringGary Cooper
Ray Milland
Robert Preston
Brian Donlevy
Susan Hayward
Music byAlfred Newman
CinematographyTheodor Sparkuhl
Archie Stout
Edited byThomas Scott
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • August 2, 1939 (1939-08-02) (United States)
Running time
112 min.
CountryUnited States


French Foreign Legionnaires approach an isolated fort in the desert. The French flag is flying, but a closer inspection reveals only dead men propped up behind the parapets. However a single shot is fired from inside, so the bugler volunteers to scale the wall to investigate. After waiting a while, the commander follows. He finds two bodies that are not staged like the rest and a note on one confessing to the theft of a valuable sapphire called the "Blue Water". After the officer rejoins his men outside, the fort goes up in flames.

Fifteen years earlier, Lady Brandon (Heather Thatcher), wife of absent spendthrift Sir Hector Brandon, takes care of the three adopted Geste brothers, "Beau" (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston) and John (Ray Milland); her ward Isobel Rivers (Susan Hayward); and heir Augustus Brandon. Years pass, and the children become young adults. They learn that Sir Hector intends to sell the "Blue Water", leaving nothing of value for Lady Brandon. At Beau's request, the gem is brought out for one last look when suddenly the lights go out and it is stolen. All present proclaim their innocence, but first Beau and then Digby depart without warning, each leaving a confession that he committed the robbery. John reluctantly parts from his beloved Isobel and goes after his brothers.

John discovers that they have joined the French Foreign Legion, so he enlists as well. They are trained by the sadistic Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy), who was originally from Siberia, but who rose through the ranks of the French Foreign Legion "through his brutality". Legionnaire Rasinoff (J. Carrol Naish) overhears joking remarks by the Geste brothers, leading him and Markoff to believe that Beau has the gem.

Markoff separates the brothers. Beau and John are assigned to a detachment sent to man isolated Fort Zinderneuf. When Lieutenant Martin dies from a fever, Markoff assumes command. Fearing the sergeant's now-unchecked brutality, Schwartz (Albert Dekker) incites the other men to mutiny the next morning; only Beau, John, and Maris (Stanley Andrews) refuse to take part. However, Markoff is tipped off by Voisin (Harold Huber) and disarms the would-be mutineers while they are sleeping. The next morning, Markoff orders Beau and John to execute the ringleaders, but they refuse.

Before Markoff can react, the fort is attacked by Arabs, forcing him to rearm his men. The initial assault is beaten off, but each new attack takes its toll. Markoff props up the corpses at their posts to deceive the enemy. The final assault is repulsed, but Beau is shot, leaving Markoff and John the only men left standing.

Markoff sends John to get bread and wine. He then searches Beau and finds a small pouch and two letters. When John sees what Markoff has done, he draws his bayonet, giving Markoff the excuse to shoot the only witness to his theft. However, Beau is not yet dead and manages to spoil Markoff's aim, allowing John to stab him. John and Beau hear a bugle announcing the arrival of reinforcements, Digby among them. Beau dies in his brother's arms after telling him to take one of the letters to Lady Brandon and leave the other, a confession of the robbery, in Markoff's hand. John escapes unseen.

Digby volunteers to find out why there is no response from the fort. He discovers Beau's body and, remembering his childhood wish, gives him a Viking funeral. He places Beau on a cot, with a "dog" (Markoff) at his feet, and sets fire to the barracks. Then he too deserts. He finds John outside the fort. Later, they encounter two American Legionnaire friends (Broderick Crawford and Charles Barton) and begin the long journey home. Desperate for water, they find an oasis, but it is occupied by Arabs. Digby tricks them into fleeing by sounding a bugle to signal a charge by non-existent Legionnaires, but is killed by a parting shot.

John returns home. Lady Brandon reads aloud Beau's letter, which reveals that he stole the gem because he knew it was a fake. Lady Brandon had sold the real one years before, and Beau wanted to protect her. As a child, he was hiding in a suit of armor and witnessed the transaction. Hence the name of the movie (and novel) "Beau Geste"; French for "gallant gesture" or "noble gesture"



The film is a virtual scene-for-scene remake of the 1926 silent version of the same title starring Ronald Colman. This is probably the best known adaptation.


The film was banned in parts of Canada out of respect for the French government.[1] The film was banned by the fascist authorities in Mussolini's Italy on the grounds that it portrayed the British too positively, and it was feared that because Britain was a democracy the film would correspondingly serve to undermine fascist ideology. The 1935 movie The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, also starring Gary Cooper, would be banned in Mussolini's Italy for the same reason.[2] Beau Geste has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[3]


Award nominations

Brian Donlevy was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film.[4]

This film is notable in that one of its screenings in California was replaced by that of Gone with the Wind, in its very first (and unannounced) preview.


  1. "Britain's First War Film Since Outbreak Of Hostilities". Recorder (Port Pirie, SA : 1919 - 1954). Port Pirie, SA: National Library of Australia. 2 January 1940. p. 3. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
  2. Hollywood Goes to War: Films and American Society, 1939-1952 By Colin Shindler pg. 2
  3. "Beau Geste (1939)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 27, 2017.
  4. "NY Times: Beau Geste". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-10.

Streaming audio

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