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Beau Geste ()


Somehow I doubt that the generation of kids growing up today, whelped on Doom and Lara Croft, have the same romantic love of the French Foreign Legion that we did when we were kids.  The concept of this fighting force made up of desperate men of all nations, given a new lease on life because they did not have to give their real name or background when they signed up, lent itself easily to fiction and to childhood fantasy.  I don't remember all of the Foreign Legion movies we watched but Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950) and March or Die (1977) [bad movie, great tagline: "In the French Foreign Legion, you march or you die!"] spring to mind, and of course the greatest of them all was Beau Geste (1939).  Directed by William Wellman and starring Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy and Susan Hayward, it was one of those movies you had to watch every time it was on.  Happily, the original novel is nearly its equal.

The three Geste brothers, orphaned early in life, are raised by an Aunt.  Their raucous youths are filled with the literature of adventure and ritualized horseplay centered around these myths and legends.  So when the family's prized Blue Water sapphire turns up missing, each of the young men confesses to being the thief in order to protect the others and one by one they head off to join the French Foreign Legion.  As luck would have it, they meet up in the deserts of Africa where they fall under the command of the malevolent Sergeant Lejaune.  Not content to merely be a martinet, Lejaune sets his sights on stealing the jewel, which rumor holds to be in their possession.  Meanwhile, the unruly troops he commands are planning a mutiny and the marauding Tauregs pin this badly outnumbered and bitterly divided unit of Legionnaires at Fort Zinderneuf.  The ensuing drama plays itself out as the French forces battle overwhelming odds.  Ultimately, only a handful of men survive to discover the truth behind the Blue Water's disappearance.

It just doesn't get any better than that central story.  Wren combines  a classic mystery and a desert adventure.  The Gestes are living embodiments of the tales on which they were weaned--generous, noble, brave and loyal.    My only real complaint is with the framing device which surrounds the story.  The novel opens with a major who lead the relief column sent to Zinderneuf describing what he found there and concludes with an overlong dénouement getting the story back to England and the jewel mystery.  But these are minor quibbles when set against the truly thrilling story at the heart of the novel.  Read the book, but be sure to see the movie.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Historical Fiction
Book-related and General Links:
    -Percival Christopher Wren (1885 - 1941)(The Royal Flashman Society of Upper Canada)
    -French Foreign Legion

FILM:
    -BUY IT: VHS (Amazon.com)
    -INFO: Beau Geste (1939)(imdb)
    -INFO: (Mr. Showbiz)
    -REVIEW: Beau Geste (1939) (Tim Dirks, filmsite)
    -Learning Guide to: Beau Geste (Teach with Movies)

Comments:

Yes, it's curious how the novel is usually dealt with as a "stand-alone" thing. I myself read Beau Geste as a boy, and only years later discovered the other two volumes - to my intense gratification!

- Hendrik Martin

- Feb-14-2007, 08:59

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Orrin, I largely agree with your review of Beau Geste but would add that the two sequels (yes, they wrote trilogies back in the 20's) probably need to be read to bring the whole saga into perspective. The number of red herrings surrounding the theft of the Blue Water mean that the real answers only emerge in Beau Ideal. Similarly, the fate of several characters from Beau Geste seem to be resolved in Beau Sabreur but in truth only become clear in Beau Ideal. The achievement of P. C. Wren in maintaining and finally unravelling the complex thread through 3 stand alone novels probably deserves an A rating in my humble opinion.

Cheers (and thanks for an interesting set of reviews)

Dave Ansell

- Dave Ansell

- Jun-15-2003, 21:42

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