If ever there was someone with a face for comedy it was Marty Feldman. With his unique features, especially his bulging and often-crossed eyes, let’s just say it’s hard to imagine him reciting the poems of Shakespeare. He did, however, work with many comedy greats during his career. He teamed up with Graham Chapman and John Cleese of Monty Python shortly before the formation of that famous comedy troupe and famously worked with director Mel Brooks in films like Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie. However, in 1977 Feldman took the reigns of a film project of his own. Starring in, co-writing, and directing The Last Remake of Beau Geste.
The film is a parody of the 1924 adventure story Beau Geste, which has been made into several films. The film begins with the pompous Sir Hector (Trevor Howard) awaiting the birth of his son, who he intends to name Beau. However, not only does his wife end up dying in childbirth, but she gives birth to a daughter! Determined to have a son, Sir Hector heads off to a local orphanage to adopt a boy. The one he chooses happens to have a twin brother, so he gets a two for one deal.
The two boys grow up quite differently with Beau (Michael York) becoming strong and handsome, and his brother Digby (Feldman) becoming…well…Marty Feldman. For many years, the boys grow up along with their sister Isabel (Sinead Cusack) with only their elderly butler Crumble (Spike Milligan) to look after them while father is off to war. When he finally returns, a much older man, Sir Hector has a new wife, Flavia (Ann-Margret). However, after just one night of marriage bed excitement, old Sir Hector now sits at death’s door. Meanwhile, Flavia sets her own agenda into motion. Her primary concern is securing for herself her husband’s riches, including a precious family sapphire.
Rather than see it fall into Flavia’s hands, Beau swipes the gem and disappears to join the French Foreign Legion. The ever loyal Digby, decides to take the heat for his brother by taking the blame and willingly going to prison. Flavia still has some tricks up her sleeve, however. She figures that if Digby were to escape he would join Beau, thus leading her right to him. So, she seduces the warden (Terry Thomas) to get him to assist with Digby’s escape in a sequence modeled after silent comedies.
Digby does end up finding Beau, serving under the command of the nasty Sergeant Markov (Peter Ustinov) who has a peg leg made of a cannon (hmmm…paging Mr. Robert Rodriguez). Now the brothers must deal with battling a band of arabs (which includes the likes of James Earl Jones, Avery Schreiber, and even Ed McMahon), as well as the schemes of Markov and their “mother.”
A very interesting edition of Trailers from Hell featuring Alan Spencer (who first met Feldman when he sneaked onto the set of Young Frankenstein as a teenager) details some of the turmoil that went on with this film. According to Spencer, Universal Pictures was not fond of the cut of the film that Feldman turned in. It told the story in a non-linear fashion, similar in style to the Monty Python brand of comedy. While Feldman was away on a two-week vacation, Universal assembled their own cut of the film, which is the version which was released. Feldman, of course, was not pleased.
Even so, The Last Remake of Beau Geste is unique, original, and pretty darn funny. The film contains an interesting mixture of absurd British comedy (a la Monty Python) and a healthy dose of wackiness and spot-on film parody that Feldman no doubt picked up from the great Mel Brooks. Feldman proves himself to be quite skilled as a comedy director. Given his unusual features, it would be easy for him to resort to mugging for the camera continuously. However, he turns out to be quite generous to the other players. He creates a lot of comedy through the unusual chemistry he has with Michael York (an inspired piece of casting, by the way). Peter Ustinov and his sidekick Roy Kinnear also get several funny moments.
One of the things I loved about the film was just the anything goes attitude about the comedy. For example, for the prison escape scene Feldman switches to black and white, speeds up the film, and gives us silent movie style music. It was startling at first, but it ends up working so well. Later in the film, Feldman ends up interacting with Gary Cooper as he inserts himself into the 1939 version of Beau Geste. Feldman displays a lot of creativity here and manages to both skewer and salute the source material quite effectively.
Despite the behind-the scenes problems, The Last Remake of Beau Geste manages to be an intriguing piece of comedy. Still, though I thoroughly enjoyed this version, I am even more interested to see Feldman’s original cut. One can dream.