The Last Remake of Beau Geste

Director: Marty Feldman                                
Marty Feldman, Ann-Margret, Michael York

Marty Feldman, the one of the bulging eyes, must have been heavily influenced by Mel Brooks in the '70s. After all, earlier in the decade he had starred in two Brooks movies, Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie. He also got his first directing experience by directing episodes of the short-lived Mel Brooks TV show When Things Were Rotten. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the first movie he directed, The Last Remake of Beau Geste, (which he also wrote), comes across as something very close to a typical Mel Brooks film. Let's make that a typical early Mel Brooks film, for it is a frequently amusing, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious exercise in satirizing those old Foreign Legion movies, not just Beau Geste.

I'm not sure how closely this follows the classic P.C. Wren novel, having never read it, though with a farce like this I suppose it really doesn't matter. Englishman Geste Sr., recently made a widower and without a male heir to his name, goes to the local orphanage to find the son he desperately wants ("And naturally, he'll be brought up with an English gentleman's attitude, and love of slaughter.") He finds his Beau, who is absolutely perfect, but is told that he has to take his "identical twin brother" Digby along as well. The years pass, and Beau turns out to be handsome, brave, and courageous. Digby, however, well... let's just say he is trying to catch up to his brother in all of those departments and more. When Blue Water, the family gem is mysteriously stolen, Beau flees to Africa to join the Foreign Legion in order to regain the family honor, while Digby agrees to take the blame and go to prison. Other parties that are looking for the gem themselves, break Digby out of jail so they can follow him to Africa when he joins the Legion himself, believing one of the brothers may actually have the gem.

Though the movie advertised itself as a spoof of the many movies about the Foreign Legion, Digby actually doesn't get to Africa until nearly half the movie is over. No real matter, because the warm-up is just as funny as the African portion of the picture. The first gags in the movie are pure Brooks, with a mockery of the old Universal Pictures logo, then we see a song in the spirit of Springtime For Hitler ("We'll give our all for France / We'll break our balls for France / We're scum, and and we're dregs, but we'll gladly die / We'd lose all our legs or a least an eye...") Though this kind of humor is the general spirit of the movie, throughout the movie there are many other kinds of humor. In the first part alone, there are one-liners ("Digby, would you set fire to me and set me out to sea?"), lampoons of cinematic clichés (like Love At Stake, there's an attack on the spinning newspaper technique), subtle sight gags in the background like Airplane did three years later, and moments of incredibly tasteless humor that includes the most hilariously offensive design for a safe ever. Just before Digby gets to Africa, there's a near brilliant jailbreak sequence, filmed in the manner of an old silent movie. The scene works so well, because it gets more absurd and frenzied as it progresses, and I was sorry when it eventually ended. When Digby does get to Africa, the humor is generally that which satirizes the material found in Foreign Legion films - pigheaded commanders, marches in the desert, mirages, hostile Arab tribes, etc. Though this stuff is pretty old hat, enough so that normally it is tiresome to see, Feldman manages to find the funny side of all of this, so they are entertaining in two senses - they are funny, and we are delighted to see them savaged.

Though he has appeared in several comedies in his career, I don't think anyone would call Michael York a comic actor. He doesn't go for a broad comic style here; at the most, he recalls the lighter moments of lead actors in otherwise straightly played swashbucklers of the back. He was a good choice to play Beau Geste, with his good looks, a small touch of snootiness, and a serious tone in character. Behaving as if he sees nothing crazy around him and not realizing that some of the things he is saying are completely absurd, York plays a very funny character, and also does well when the plot needs some seriousness to advance. I was surprised about Feldman's performance, however. Though he wrote and directed the movie, his role almost becomes a secondary part. He doesn't have that much dialogue in the movie, and there are hints here (including the escape sequence) that Feldman was a fan of silent movie comedy. Don't get me wrong - he is many times in this movie genuinely funny - but even with those famous eyes, he's somewhat lacking a strong screen presence to be really memorable.

Another reason why he might not have that much presence onscreen is due to his screenplay. Nobody in the movie seems to really think a lot about Digby, or include him in that many activities with other people. Sometimes, the writing lacks clear focus, as when the movie quickly jumps back and forth from one location to another. Also contributing to the lack of focus is the number of characters - there are far too many. Yes, I though Ted Cassidy was hilarious as the blind recruit, Avery Schrieber a hoot as the used camel salesman, James Earl Jones amusing in his brief cameo, and Peter Ustinov as the harsh Sergeant who has some childish secrets a joy to watch. I laughed at their scenes, but so much time is devoted to these throwaway (though very amusing) scenes, less time is available for the main characters or the story. This unfocus maybe makes it inevitable that towards the end of the movie, things turn into a real mess, with the story becoming extremely weird (even for this kind of movie) and somewhat hard to follow. There are still some laughs here, though, which kind of sums up The Last Remake of Beau Geste - you'll laugh throughout the movie despite its major flaws. Just don't watch it when your mind is in a mood to really think about a movie.

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See also: Backfire!, Love At Stake, Pandemonium