Mel Brooks started the trend of parody films with Blazing Saddles, comedy westerns had been made before but his was a tribute/poke in the eye to the movies of the past. His masterpiece was Young Frankenstein, that movie featured Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman. Both of these brilliant comedic actors made their own film parody movies in the next few years. If this was a type of humor that you enjoyed, then the 1970s is a time you would have loved. Not all of the movies are remembered with the same degree of fondness however. For every High Anxiety or Young Frankenstein, there is a Last Remake of Beau Geste. It is not a bad film, as a matter of fact, there are a number of extremely funny elements to the movie, is is merely that for whatever reason the movie has not had a long standing audience.
I originally saw this movie in 1977, at the Crest Theater in Westwood California. For a Trojan like myself, a visit to Westwood was always a bit iffy. I can’t say that I was jealous, but I was resentful that to see some films, I had to schlep myself over to the land of the enemy and travel under the radar. It wasn’t really that bad. Westwood in those days was a happening. It was where the newest restaurants were and where movies would open first before making their way out to the suburbs where I lived. It is next to Beverly Hills and Brentwood, and has the UCLA campus as it’s hat. It was perfectly understandable why the beautiful people would not want to come to South Central to see a movie or have dinner. At least until the 1980s, when some gang shooting broke out in the Westwood area and ended the monopoly on upscale night time street life in Southern California. Today, people travel to LA Live in Downtown, Old Town in Pasadena, and several spots in Hollywood and Santa Monica to get this type of experience. Anyway, that is why I can vividly remember seeing the picture there. Dolores was with me and I think Dan Hasegawa went with us. Art was in the Army at this point and missed most of that summer with us.
The movie may have little resonance with audiences because the genre of film that was being parodied had not really survived the first golden age of Hollywood. Desert pictures were old school, Valentino went out in the twenties and the Gary Cooper picture this is mostly modeled after is from 1939. There was actually a straight picture made about the Foreign Legion that year called March or Die, it stars my favorite actor Gene Hackman. To show you how dead the genre was, I have never seen it despite my man crush on Mr. Hackman. It was a big flop that year. Having seen the Last Remake, I now think I should seek it out and add it to my collection. We enjoyed the movie while we were there in the theater, but I don’t think I gave it another thought until I saw the original Beau Geste a dozen years or so ago. Brian Donlevy played the sadistic Sgt. in the original, Peter Ustinov is the Sgt. in the parody. While I liked a lot of the jokes based on the alternating false legs that the character kept putting on, it was no substitute for the sneering threat of Donlevy when he utters the line “I promise you…”.
There is a nice scene in this movie where Marty Feldman actually appears in the original Beau Geste and he and Gary Cooper share a cigarette and trade lines with each other. I wonder if this is the inspiration for “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, which came out about five years later. Maybe this type of thing was done in earlier films, but it looks to me that Woody Allen’s Zelig and Robert Zemekis Forrest Gump, both owe something to the lunacy of Marty Feldman. There are dozens of other bits in the movie as well that work pretty well. The courtroom scene where the judge played by Hugh Griffin from Ben Hur, allows the audience and jurors to keep biding up the sentence to be given to Digby is really funny. Digby’s escape from prison is done as a black and white silent style picture montage and it is also very effective. This movie had some great songs in it as well. John Morris, who did the Mel Brooks movies, provides some funny lyrics for the desert march that the legionaries sing in a couple of segments. Plenty to laugh at if you remember the times and don’t get too offended by a casual attitude toward sexual assault.
There are many stars from the time in the movie. Of course Marty Feldman was big after the success of Young Frankenstein, but Ann Margret would be the equivalent of having an Angelina Jolie in your movie today. Trevor Howard, Hugh Griffin, and Peter Ustinov are all established actors if not quite movie stars, and there are several other well known faces in the cast as well. Michael York was in so many movies that I remember from the seventies that it is strange he seems to have slipped off the radar in the eighties. I know he kept working but he was never in a series of high profile movies like that again. He was in Cabaret, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Murder on the Orient Express, and Logan’ Run in a four year period. The summer this movie came out he was also in the Island of Dr. Moreau. James Earl Jones has a part in this movie as well, although it is understandable how that other movie he was featured in during the summer of 1977 would overshadow this. I had to purchase this from Universal’s vault series, it has not had a regular DVD release and is custom published by the studio. This is another reason I know it lacks the same following as some of the other comedies of the time. For a movie that I did not remember very well, there is actually a lot that is memorable.