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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4 (2003) 701-728
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Beyond Us and Them:
Identity and Terror from an Arab American's Perspective
Beau Geste, William A. Wellman's 1939 cinematic romance of legionnaires besieged by Bedouins in a desert outpost, represents a version of Arab identity still familiar in the West. The orphaned Geste brothers, Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston), and John (Ray Milland), described by their charming guardian (Susan Hayward) as "three little gentlemen of fortune," grow up to join the foreign legion. Their incidental motivation involves a chivalrous desire to protect their guardian from a family scandal involving financial ruin and a purloined jewel, the "Blue Water Sapphire." Their real motivation stems from their boyish desire for adventure. Their enlistment in the expeditionary forces of the French Empire continues their romantic childhood fantasies and games. Thus, the film imagines the armed conflicts of empire as the romantic projection of Western masculinity upon the East, the expression of a boyish love of adventure upon the territory and bodies of the natives. In one wonderful scene, recruits to the legion appear at a desert staging-ground [End Page 701] still in their civilian clothes (these consist of an assortment of easily recognizable central casting costumes): the burly American (Broderick Crawford) appears in a cowboy's vest and a ten-gallon hat; the petit-forging Frenchman (Harold Huber) sports a foulard and a beret; a stuffy English aristocrat wears a bowler hat and has, of course, a monocle. The film, like all romances, relentlessly reduces identity to type. Indeed, through such simplified and familiar identities, the genre appeals to us most effectively. We want romantic heroes to be iconic embodiments of masculine virtue, romantic heroines to be beautiful and resolute in adversity, romantic villains to be implacable avatars of evil. In the romantic mythology of the French Foreign Legion the desert represents the place where European and American men go to forget who they were and what they did in more civilized climes. But what really gets forgotten in these oriental romances is that such fantastic simplifications of identity—extensions of romantic characterizations that reduce individuals to types—play a crucial part in the real expression of imperial power. The imposition of empire often depends on reductions of identity into a concise opposition between them and us.
The Geste boys run off to join the legion after someone—perhaps one of them—steals the fantastically valuable Blue Water Sapphire, the mother of all sapphires and the basis of the family fortune. This stone, of course, originates in the East. The cursed gem is a favorite topos of the orientalist romance in which purloined Eastern wealth frequently motivates conflicts and causes mayhem among the Western antagonists. Percival Christopher Wren's novel and this film's adaptation of it share this trusty device with Wilkie Collins, A. C. Doyle, and many others. That these frequently ill-gotten gains usually bring death and destruction rather than wealth and ease seems wholly appropriate. They represent synecdochally the vast stolen human and material wealth of the Orient and the endless and costly skirmishes and wars among Western powers over the spoils of empire. They represent as well, one suspects, the bad conscience of the West, which, under the thin ideological cover of a civilizing mission and a romantic idea of identity, conducted the vicious subjection and plunder of colonized peoples it purported to uplift and protect.
Beau Geste remains a fascinating film because at crucial moments it allows its audience to read the history of the West's bad faith. At the induction scene in which the legionnaires appear in their civilian costumes, they hear the villainous Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy), a Russian martinet [End Page 702] who has done time in Siberia (and who therefore represents a contemporary Eastern threat to American interests), deliver an indoctrinating harangue. You are here, he tells the recruits, at the service of "twenty million natives," furnishing them the "protection and justice that is the tradition of the Foreign Legion...