Thursday, May 14, 2009

VHS Tapes Have I Known: The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)

Although my movie collection is overwhelmingly DVD, I keep a few VHS tapes around. I'll be devoting some space to them sporadically.

The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)
Director: Marty Feldman
Starring: Michael York, Marty Feldman, Ann-Margret

I could spend hours discussing this highly underrated comedy, which begins with Marty Feldman destroying a 1940s-era Universal logo and maintains the same level of zaniness from there. This is the first of Feldman's two outings as a director (the second being In God We Tru$t) and if he doesn't have the surest hand in controlling his material, there's a certain delight in the fact that the whole affair is so uncontrolled. Feldman's approach is clearly inspired by Mel Brooks, particularly Young Frankenstein. Like that film, it's a loving parody of a particular kind of classic movie, in this case the old Foreign Legion chestnut Beau Geste (in one scene, Marty Feldman has an argument with footage of Gary Cooper from the 1939 version).

To protect the family's prized Blue Water Sapphire from his scheming (and unreasonably attractive) stepmother (Ann-Margret), Beau Geste (Michael York) absconds with the jewel and joins the Foreign Legion in Africa. Digby Geste (Feldman) soon follows, and together they attempt to survive an insane commander (Peter Ustinov) and attacks by the Arabs (lead by the genial and cheese-tastic James Earl Jones).

Much of the humor derives from the relationship between Digby and Beau, who we are told are identical twins (although Digby notes, "Somehow Beau was much more identical than me. "). Beau is apparently too handsome, courageous, and wonderful to feel pain, so Digby feels it for him (which leads to all the expected jokes). Digby is unreasonably devoted to Beau and Beau is... well, reasonably devoted to Digby. Beau's more interested in honor, adventure, and being buried at sea (even in the middle of the stinking desert).

Feldman's approach to humor is very much of the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" variety and, admittedly, many of the jokes seem to be coated in teflon. Feldman's desperate willingness to please, however, maintains a continuity between the groaners and the belly laughs. Once you've become as accustomed to the film as I have, even the dumbest jokes (like the grinning Jack T. Ripper with the severed arm in his medical kit) take on a certain charm. Comic turns from folks like Henry Gibson, Trevor Howard, Terry-Thomas, Roy Kinnear, Ted Cassidy, Burt Kwouk, and Spike Milligan (as the ever-devoted and terribly senile butler, Crumble) keep the movie lively and entertaining throughout.

What's more, you can actually watch the film right now without the benefit of VHS (and in widescreen) thanks to the fine folks at Hulu. Check it out.

Incidentally, there was another version of Beau Geste made after this, in the form of a 1982 miniseries, but Feldman's film is the last cinematic outing of the Geste brothers, so the title still holds.

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