Percival Christopher Wren's 52-year-old adventure novel "Beau Geste" is such diverting valorous hokum that it's safe to assume movie versions will never cease being made. In any given decade there are always several actors, British and American, who could have a swell time impersonating the extravagantly noble, self-sacrificing (and, if the truth be known, self-satisified) Geste brothers.
At the moment Edward Fox, for example might make a sensational "Beau," the nickname of the eldest brother, Michael, whose desire to help conceal his aunt's deception leads him into theft, flight and a perilous tour of luty in the French Foreign Legion, where he is loyall if uncomprehendingly followed by siblings Digby and John.
Marty Feldman's farcical adaptation, "The Last Remake of Beau Geste," opening today at the K-B Cinema, is not exactly a devastating or irresistible put-down of the original's nostalgic heroic cliches and conventions, which were rendered more or less faithfully in three earlier films.
While "Remake" may seem just what the doctor ordered for incorrigible, indefatigable horse-laughters, it's rather more likely to be unfondly remembered as Feldman's bungling attempt to ingration himself as a comedy writer-director-star with the American movie-going public.
After the success of Mel Brookes' "Blazing Saddles," the all-too-apparent and treacherous model for Feldman's dumb jesting, one feels reluctant to underestimate the commercial potential of anything in the painfully facetious, blatantly obvious and/or vociferously, smutty veins. However, Feldman may have miscalculated by paroting the Brooks tone in a way that makes unflattering comparisons inevitable.
Although there's no difference in the games they like to play, Feldman seems a shaky, bush-league terrible jokers compared to a prodigal, big-league terrible joker like Brooks.
Gene Wilder, whose association with Brooks goes back further than Feldman's found a comic tone of his own in the first picture, he directed, "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes" Smarter Brother." He also created a starring role for himself, a basic requirement Feldman utterly fails to fulfill in "Remake," which generates more activity for Peter Ustinove and Roy Kinnear, cast as fat-comic rotters, than for Michael York and Feldman himself as the heroes, Beau and Digby Geste respectively.
Borrowing a joke from one of Wilder's best non-Brooks vehicles, "Start the Revolution Without Me," Feldman asks us to believe that Beau and Digby are non-lookalike identical twins. It is not a bright idea.
In the first place Feldman seems to have missed the point of the joke as formulated in "Revolution." Wilder and Donald Sutherland were cast as the grown-up editions of two sets of identical twins who had been mixed up at birth by a rattled country doctor.
Moreover, since both Wilder and Sutherland have eccentric styles and lack conventional good looks, the earlier movie was never faced with the somewhat grotesque and embarrassing disparities that result in "Remake" from Feldman's decision to pair with an actor as handsome and sincere as York.
This unfunny mismatch makes one doubt Feldman's ability to use himself with sufficient wit and discretion. He gets lost in York's glowing, sunny presence and aggravates the error by inventing scenes which illustrate Digby's servility or inadequancy in contrast to Beau's confidence and grace.
York is a perfect gentleman. He never acts condescending in the way that the "straight" partners in comedy teams - Bud Abbott and Dean Martin, for example - often did. Nevertheless, the effect is equally unpleasant, because Feldman makes himself look smaller, homelier and more expendatle than he should ever be allowed to.
He was more of an asset to Brooks in "Young Frankenstein" and "Silent Movie" and to Wilder in "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" than he is to himself.
Feldman appeared in a number of in a number of British movie farces British movie farces before emigrating to Hollywood. Watching "Remake" flounder around, one can't help thinking that even the tackiest of his earlier vehicles must have offered more spontaneous humor.
Feldman often seems uncertain about whether a sight gag will pay off, so to reassure himself, he'll run it into the ground.
To take a literal example, there's a funny insert of what is obviously a sandcastle, supposedly representing a Legion outpost in the desert. In case any doubt remained, a group of riders pass over the structure, trampling it down. This is fine, but why does Feldman need the redundancy of a shot in which the camera pulls back to show a toy pail and shovel too?
Feldman seems to enjoy kidding certain technical clinches of filmmaking, an inclination far more amiable than his apparently insatiable appetite for jokes blindness, amputated limbs and bare behinds.
The best single gag in the film shows a spinning front page of a newspaper fluttering to the ground and continuing to rotate, much to the distress of a senile family played by Spike Milligan, who keeps running around in cicrcles trying to read it.