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Literature / Beau Geste

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Promotional poster for the 1939 film.

Beau Geste is a 1924 British adventure novel by Percival Christopher Wren. It details the adventures of the orphaned Geste brothers — Michael (also known as Beau), his twin Digby, and their younger brother John — in the French Foreign Legion. This novel is best known for its popularization of the Legion of Lost Souls trope.

It has been adapted several times for both stage and screen (including a 1926 silent film starring Ronald Colman and a 1939 sound version directed by William A. Wellman and starring Gary Cooper), and parodied numerous times more (such as a 1977 spoof directed by and starring Marty Feldman). The Goon Show play "Under Two Floorboards" is actually their version of this thing, not Under Two Flags.

This novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • The Ace: Michael, especially in the eyes of his idolizing brothers.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Digby, but of a more subdued manner and not for long anyway.
  • Badass Army: The French Foreign Legion, as romanticized by the book.
  • Bedouin Rescue Service: Near the end of the book when the heroes are wandering through the Sahara after deserting from the Legion.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While John lives and the real reason for the loss of the Blue Water is revealed, his brothers and friends are dead.
  • Cruel Mercy: Markoff tells a pair of captured deserters who are half-dead from exposure to the Thirsty Desert that he could have them Shot at Dawn, but he won't ... Instead he's going to let them "escape" again. He then has the pleading men forcibly removed from the fort and orders two men to follow them and keep them from drinking from any watering holes, condemning them to die of thirst.
  • Cunning Linguist: One of the old Legionnaires whom the brothers look up to reveals that he speaks English as well as several other languages. Also, Michael decides that he and his brother ought to learn Arabic and they end up becoming fluent in it after a while, which comes in handy later.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Though he's not a drill sergeant, Lejaune's personality fits, to the point where the Legionnaires mutiny.
  • El Cid Ploy: At the climax of the book, Lejaune orders the brothers to prop up the dead legionnaires to look like they're still alive and defending the fort.
  • A Father to His Men: Lieutenant Martin lectures Markoff for mistreating the new recruits and makes a speech about the honorable side of being a legionnaire. From his sickbed, he also tries to order Markoff not to use any violence to punish two deserters.
    Martin: The men must be led, not driven.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Gussie hangs out with his adopted cousins a lot, but they view each other with mutual annoyance. Gussie is actually pleased to role-play as King Arthur's betrayer Modred when Beau is role-playing as King Arthur.
  • Gentlemen Rankers: The protagonists are both examples, being of aristocratic family.
  • Homage: given in Peanuts.
  • Honor Before Reason: Michael's reason for leaving England to enlist in the Legion, and that of his brothers for joining him after they find out what he's done.
  • Impractically Fancy Outfit: The famous Legionnaire's uniform, which at the time consisted of a blue tunic, red breeches and a white cap, all made of heavy wool. This makes them sitting ducks to the native tribesmen who are dressed much more practically for the climate.
  • Knight's Armor Hideout: Hiding in a suit of armour was how Michael "Beau" Geste knew that the Blue Water had been replaced with a fake — he saw his aunt selling the real Blue Water while she was unaware that he could see her from his hiding place in the armour.
  • Legion of Lost Souls: Is it ever. Most of the Legionnaires are criminals and/or conscripts who had no choice but to enlist. The three brothers stand out for their upper-class roots and education.
  • Locked Room Mystery:
    • The Blue Water sapphire disappears in a room where nobody is except the six relatives of its owner when the lights go out for about twenty seconds. No one else could have entered the room without letting light in by opening the door.
    • When a relief column arrives at Fort Zindernuef, they see scores of dead soldiers propped up on the walls, and then someone shoots at them from inside the fort. One legionnaire enters the fort with a grappling hook but never reappears, causing his commander to climb after him. In addition to the bodies slumped against the wall, the commander finds a sergeant who was stabbed to death, and Beau Geste, who was laid out peacefully after the sergeant was stabbed and is holding a letter confessing to the theft of a jewel. The commander searches the fort and finds no sign of the scout he sent or whoever shot at him. When he goes to open the gate for his men, Beau and the sergeant's bodies and the letter all have disappeared by the time he gets back. Then as soon as they've left the fort, someone still inside sets fire to it. The commander is left musing that his superiors will think he's crazy when he describes everything that happened. The climax reveals that the man who shot at him, John Geste, went over the wall on the opposite side of the fort right after shooting at the approaching legionnaires, as he wants to desert. The scout who first entered the fort is John and Beau's brother Digby, who found the letter and then slumped over the wall, pretending to be one of the dead soldiers, when his superior entered the fort. When his superior went to open the gate, Digby dragged the bodies to a room the commander had already searched to give Beau a Viking Funeral and prevent him from being posthumously branded as a thief. After setting the fire, he then escaped over the opposite wall himself.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Michael's nickname, Beau Geste, meaning "beautiful gesture" in French. Takes on Fridge Brilliance once the truth about the Blue Water is revealed. It turns out Lady Patricia sold the stone and arranged for a duplicate made; Michael decided to stage a theft of the stone to deflect blame from his aunt, and thus was a beautiful gesture to her.
    • Lejaune, the commander of Fort Zinderneuf, whose name means "the yellow" in French. Yellow is not a colour with positive overtones in English, chief among them being cowardice and Lejaune does end up betraying the heroes during the siege of Zinderneuf before earning himself a Karmic Death. Also noteworthy in that a discharge notice in the French army during this period was known as a "cartouche jaune" (yellow paper), symbolically implying that Lejaune was unfit for service in the regular army.
  • Mineral MacGuffin: The sapphire, Blue Water.
  • Mistaken Confession: The brothers each jokingly claim to have the missing sapphire and make up stories about what they'll do with the money, while ducking around the issue who really does have it. Unfortunately, another legionnaire is eavesdropping on them and takes them seriously.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: What the three brothers end up becoming in the Legion.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: John thinks to himself that the native Tuaregs are barbaric and savage as opposed to the civilized French. Really, they just want the French out of North Africa.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Comparing Beau Geste with Simon Murray's Legionnaire, a real-life account of the French Foreign Legion, it is apparent that the point where Lejaune draws the line on his Drill Sergeant Nasty treatment of the legionnaires is about the point where the real-life sergeants start.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Said nearly word-for-word when Markoff makes the spy who ratted out the mutiny stand guard in a tower that the raiders have a good shot at. The guy faces his fate with more dignity than most examples of the trope, though.
  • Sea of Sand: Both the 1939 and 1966 productions emphasize the sea of sand aspect of the Sahara — justified in this case, as the French Foreign Legion fought its wars in French North African colonies that involved garrisoning forts in the deeper desert.
  • Shout-Out: The whole "leave dead guys firing" plot resembles that in The Three Musketeers.
  • Training from Hell: The Legion's training, which consists largely of incredibly long marches through the scorching desert.
  • Undying Loyalty: The Gestes to each other. Also, Hank and Buddy.
  • Viking Funeral: Discussed early on in the book. Later, the dying Michael asks John to burn his body in the fort at Zinderneuf, which he does.
  • Volleying Insults: When they first meet, John and Hank trade some good-natured barbs about the Friendly Rivalry between their respective countries.