Beau Geste (1939): William Wellman’s Oscar-Nominated Adventure, Starring Gary Cooper

William Wellman’s 1939 feature is the second of three movie versions of P.C. Wren’s adventure novel Beau Geste, made as silent in 1926, with Ronald Colman in the part that Gary Cooper played in this film.

The tale opens on the scene of a remote, burning desert fort, manned by the Foreign Legionnaires, then flash back to the early lives of the Geste brothers. As children, the Gestes swear eternal loyalty to one another and to their family. One of the boys, Beau (played as  youth by Donald O’Connor), witnesses his beloved aunt (Heather Thatcher) apparently stealing a valuable family jewel in order to finance the Geste home; Beau chooses to remain silent rather than disgrace his aunt.

Years later, the grown Beau (Gary Cooper) protects his aunt by confessing to the theft and running off to join the Foreign Legion. He is joined in uniform by brothers John (Ray Milland) and Digby (Robert Preston), who in turn are pursued by slimy thief Rasinoff (J. Carroll Naish).

The three Geste brothers join the French Foreign Legion so that no one would be thought guilty of stealing the valuable sapphire, the “Blue Water,” from their guardian, Lady Patricia Brandon.

At the Legion training post, Rasinoff overhears each brother boast that he stole and now possesses the gem. The cruel Sergeant Markoff wrings this information out of him and plots to get the jewel.

He decides to separate the brothers when he selects a group for Fort Zinderneuf.  Digby Geste is sent to Fort Tokotu.  Beau and John go to Fort Zinderneuf, with Sergeant Markoff taking command after the death of inexperienced young lieutenant.

But his cruel dictatorship results in a mutiny.  Since the Geste brothers are not involved in it, Markoff orders Beau and John to shoot the rebellion’s leaders.  When they refuse, he threatens to have them shot, but suddenly the fort is attacked by a wild tribe.  Markoff searches for the gem, when John, with the help of the dying Beau, rams a bayonet through the sergeant’s chest.

Beau gives John two letters (one for Markoff and one for Lady Brandon) before he dies.  John then sets fire to the Fort, giving Beau a hero’s funeral.

Some critics (not me) found Cooper to be miscast as a British soldier.  Those partial to the silent version, which was a smash hit, claim it’s still the best rendition of the novel.

As a youngster, I was a member of a movie club, whose membership was divided between those who liked “Beau Geste” as one of the most entertaining adventures and those who favored “Gunga Din,” also made in 1939.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: Brian Donlevy

Interior Decoration: Hans Dreier and Robert Odell


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was Thomas Mitchell for “Stagecoach.

The Interior Decoration Oscar went to “Gone With the Wind,” which swept most of the awards in 1939.


“Beau Geste” was restored by the American Film Institute (AFI) in the late 1980s.

Running time: 114 Minutes.

Released: September 15, 1939.

DVD: May 31, 2005


Gary Cooper (Beau Geste)

Ray Milland (John Geste)

Robert Preston (Digby Geste)

Brian Donlevy (Sergeant Markoff)

Susan Hayward (Isobel Rivers)

J. Carrol Naish (Rasinoff)

Albert Dekker (Schwartz)

Broderick Crawford (Hank Miller)

Charles Barton (Buddy McMonigal)

James Stephenson (Major Henri de Beaujolais)

Heather Thatcher (Lady Patricia Brandon)

G.P. Huntley, Jr. (Augustus Brandon)

James Burke (Lieutenant Dufour)

Henry Brandon (Renouf)

Arthur Aylesworth (Renault)

Harry Woods (Renoir)

Harold Huber (Voisin)

Stanley Andrews (Maris)

Donald O’Connor (Beau at 12)

Billy Cook (John at 10)

Martin Spellman (Digby at 12)

David Holt (Augustus at 12)

Ann Gillis (Isobel at 10)

Harvey Stephens (Lieutenant Martin)

Barry Macollum (Krenke)

Ronnie Rondell (Bugler)




Produced and directed by William A. Wellman.

Scenarist: Robert Carson, based on the novel “Beau Geste” by Percival Christopher Wren.

Camera: Theodor Sparkuhl, Archie Stout.

Editor: Thomas Scott.

Art Directors: Hans Dreier, Robert Odell.

Musical Score: Alfred Newman.

Orchestrator: Edward Powell.

Sound Recorders: Hugo Grenzbach, Walter Oberst.

Technical Adviser: Louis Van Der Ecker.