In 1926 Percival Christopher Wren's best-selling novel "Beau Geste" was brought to the screen in a thrilling silent adaptation by John Russell and Herbert Brenon. It was a film that inspired director William Wellman and launched numerous remakes ( including Wellman's own 1939 version of Beau Geste ).
Ronald Colman, Neil Hamilton and Ralph Forbes star in the lead roles of three English brothers who join the Foreign Legion after one of them is accused of stealing a family jewel known as "The Blue Water". They find that becoming real soldiers is a far cry from the game of soldiers they played in their youth, especially with a bestial sergeant ( Noah Berry ) and a greasy rat ( William Powell ) in their company.
Beau Geste could be called a war film, but it would be better to classify it as a mystery, for director Herbert Brenon established a riddle of events within the first fifteen minutes that draws audiences into discovering what the remaining story has to tell. Unlike most mysteries, it unravels its narrative working backwards to a solution.
Beau Geste begins with a troop of Foreign Legion soldiers marching towards a fort announcing their coming and receiving no response from the trumpeteer within. When the leader of the troop, Major de Beaujolais, investigates closer he finds that all of the soldiers standing guard around the fort are corpses, leaning with their guns pointed outwards in readiness for an attack. He asks for a volunteer to climb the walls and open the gates from within, but this man too disappears and so the Major scales the walls himself and finds the dead body of the commander clasping a letter in his hand...a letter addressed to Scotland Yard, confessing a crime that he had committed. The major returns to his soldiers outside of the gate but within a few minutes turns to find that the fort is going up in flames. A bonfire of corpses standing alone in the desert. What could it all mean?
Paramount united with its rival, Famous Players, to bring Beau Geste to the screen, releasing it in the autumn of 1926. Critics at the time thought the film would have only a mediocre run, underestimating audiences ability to endure an "epic length" film ( 120 minutes ). Little did they realize that within twenty years this would become a standard running time. Beau Geste quickly became Paramount's biggest hit of the year and one of the greatest box-office successes of the entire decade.
Some of the era's most popular stars worked together to make the film such a roaring success....Ronald Colman, who was being groomed as a rival to Rudolph Valentino, the legendary actor Neil Hamilton, William Powell, Ralph Forbes, Victor McLagen, Alice Joyce ( as the boys mother ), and Mary Brian as their love interest.
Norman Trevor receives the choicest role as Major de Beaujolais, the man who first discovers the mysterious Citadel of the Dead with its legions of dead soldiers standing guard. As Sergeant LeJaune, Noah Berry demonstrates a glorious slice of ham in a performance which would have earned him an Academy Award had the awards been established at that time.
Beau Geste is silent cinema at its best, combining elements of adventure, mystery and romance in one tight production and we highly recommend it as an introductory film for those who have not yet had a taste of silent cinema.
This post is our contribution to The Silent Cinema Blogathon being hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and running from Oct. 27 - Oct. 29, 2015. Be sure to check out all the great articles on your silent film favorites.