The History of Colour-Sergeant Lejaune

“…And then appeared upon the scene the only man I have ever met who seemed to me to be bad, wholly bad, evil all through, without a single redeeming virtue save courage.” John Geste

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It must be the heat. This endless 2018 UK heatwave has brought about my own bout of le cafard. In my sultry ennui, thoughts have turned to the desert. And when I think of the desert, I think of my WordPress avatar. He is an old Esci 1/72 scale figure of the French Foreign Legion from my childhood collection. Some time ago I dubbed him Sergeant Lejaune, after a character from Beau Geste. The little fellow had something of the bearing of a tough and experienced NCO about him.

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Such was the terrific quality of the sculpting that it was possible to reveal a face of real character.

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I think I painted him about 5 or 6 years ago along with a handful of other Legionnaires from Esci’s now very rare set “French Foreign Legion”.

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In P.C. Wren’s iconic novel about the French Foreign Legion, “Beau Geste”, Colour-Sergeant Lejaune is first described by Major Henri de Beaujolais of the Spahis, who had discovered his body in the deserted Fort Zinderneuf:

“Lying on his back, his sightless eyes out-staring the sun–lay the Commandant, and through his heart, a bayonet, one of our long, thin French sword-bayonets with its single-curved hilt! No–he had not been shot, he was absolutely untouched elsewhere, and there he lay with a French bayonet through his heart.”

So begins the mystery of Fort Zinderneuf with its eerie garrison of dead legionnaires still arraigned propped-up at their posts in the embrasures. John Geste describes his first meeting with this fearful sergeant thus:

“He came from the regimental offices, a fierce-looking, thick-set, dark man, with the face and figure of a prize-fighter; glaring and staring of eye, swarthily handsome, with the neck and jowl of a bull-dog. He also had the curious teeth-baring, chin-protruding jaw-thrust of a bull-dog, and there were two deep lines between the heavy beetling brows.

…This was Colour-Sergeant Lejaune, a terrible and terrifying man, who had made his way in the Legion (and who made it further still) by distinguishing himself among distinguished martinets as a relentlessly harsh and meticulous disciplinarian, a savagely violent taskmaster, and a punishing non-com. of tremendous energy, ability, and courage.

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…To his admiring superiors he was invaluable; to his despairing subordinates he was unspeakable… He took an actual delight in punishing, and nothing angered him more than to be unable to find a reason for doing it…

At this point you’re probably beginning to realise what a thoroughly unpleasant character Lejaune is. Not perhaps the best name for a welcoming avatar! In the book, we learn a little of Lejaune’s history. He came from service in the Belgian Congo, a colony which had a reputation for appalling brutality towards its indigenous inhabitants even amongst the widespread colonialist attitudes of the day.

And later, through the coming to the Legion of a deserter from the Belgian army, we learnt a sinister, significant, and explanatory fact… Lejaune had been dismissed from the Belgian Congo service for brutalities and atrocities exceeding even the limit fixed by good King Leopold’s merry men.

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Looking again at my avatar, however, although I dubbed him Sergeant Lejaune, he has a distinctly kindly face with more than a hint of a warm smile about him. He’s more of a favourite uncle than a fearful NCO. Perhaps he’s the alter ego of Wren’s Lejaune? Belgian sadist his namesake may be, but as my avatar he’s quite a welcoming face to visitors.

Here are a few of his ‘chums’ from the French Foreign Legion. Bear in mind that I painted these back in 2012/13, I believe, when I’d only been painting 1/72 scale for a matter of months. I think they stand up pretty well!

I said that this Italeri set is very rare, but boom times are coming to lovers of Beau Geste in miniature scale. In some great news, I understand that Italeri are soon reissuing this set of figures, although it seems only as part of a big “Beau Geste: Algerian Tuareg Revolt Set” which comes with a fort, Tuareg tents, Tuaregs and more. At 64 euros, I may have to think carefully about that! What’s more, Strelets are also apparently working on their own fine-looking set of Foreign Legion and Arabs!

Lejaune and the Movies

The character of Colour-Sergeant Lejaune has been depicted in film a number of times since Wren’s novel was first written. Here’s a brief overview of how he’s been portrayed:

Beau Geste (1926)

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This early version of Wren’s famous tale was a silent movie and starred Ronald Colman as Beau Geste with the actor Noah Beery playing the role of the Sergeant Lejeune.

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Noah Beery (far right) as Sergeant Lejaune.

Interestingly, Noah Beery reprised his role as Sergeant Lejaune in 1939 in a radio play, starring alongside Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier (Olivier had previously played Beau Geste on stage) as part of the CBS Campbell Playhouse radio series. In reprising his role, Beery was switching from a silent-only role to a voice-only performance, demonstrating an impressive range of ability. You can listen to the play, with Welles at the beginning introducing Beery as “your favourite villain” below:

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Orson Welles on the radio

Beau Geste (1939)

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The very splendid blog “Movies a la Mark” posted on the 1939 Hollywood production of Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper. The brutal sergeant, this time instead known as Sergeant Markoff, in this film was played by Brian Donlevy. The site has this glowing tribute to Donlevy’s loathsome Legionnaire portrayal:

“Best of all, and what gives the picture real guts and grit is Brian Donlevy’s famous performance of ‘Sgt. Markoff’, next to whom the Sahara is no big deal.  Brutally sarcastic and about as sadistic as the Production Code would allow, this remains one of foremost villain roles of the 30s.

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Sergeant Markoff (aka “Lejeune”)

For whatever reasons, the other cast members did not like Donlevy at all – maybe he was a method actor ahead of his time?  On-set relations probably did not improve when Ray Milland accidentally stabbed Donlevy in the abdomen with a bayonet, bad enough to leave a lifelong scar.”

‘Accidentally’? One has to wonder given the strained relations on set!

Beau Geste (1966)

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Telly Savalas as Sergeant-Major Dagineau (aka Markoff, aka Lejeune…)

1966’s update had Telly Sevalas playing the infamous nemesis of the Geste brothers. This film took great liberties with the original plot; the British Geste brothers were now American and had been reduced to just two. As with the 1938 film, our sergeant had been renamed again to Sergeant-Major Dagineau. Dagineau is revealed to be a former St. Cyr military school educated officer who was broken to the ranks once his previous troops under his command had deserted to a man.

Beau Geste – BBC TV Series (1982)

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I well recall eagerly watching this series as a boy when it was released, greatly enjoying the depiction of these soldiers on television. The brothers Geste were played by Benedict Taylor, Anthony Calf and Jonathon Morris. In the 1982 BBC series, John Forgeham played the sadistic sergeant. A character actor noted for his ability to play less than sympathetic roles, the 6-foot tall Forgeham was very well cast, exuding menace and violence in every scene.

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Forgeham’s Lejeune tears a strip of an unfortunate Legionnaire.

The series stayed much closer to plot than other films and the name of Sergeant Lejaune was retained. The production also notably paid very close attention to authentic legionnaires uniform and equipment, the troops even shown singing the legion’s famous marching song “Le Boudin”. In Wrens’ book, Lejaune also calls for them to sing this song;

“Now, my merry birds,” said he, “you’re going to sing, and sing like the happy joyous larks you are. We’ll let our Arab friends know that we’re not only awake, but also merry and bright. Now then–the Marching Song of the Legion first. All together, you warbling water-rats–Now.” And led by his powerful bellow, we sang at the tops of our voices.

The BBC budget restricted the outdoor filming location to a less authentic, but nonetheless vaguely convincing, Dorset sandpit. It was not the first film of the Foreign Legion to have its desert scenes shot in the south of England, the 1967 Carry-On film “Follow that Camel” substituting the Sahara for Rye and Camber sands!

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An Update: It seems that the Foreign Legion is all the rage in this hot weather. My good friend Mark at Man of Tin Blog has coincidentally just posted on his own band of 15mm Peter Laing Legionnaires, complete with palm trees courtesy of Danish chain “Flying Tiger”. I wonder if there’s a Sergeant Major Lejaune amongst them too?

7 thoughts on “The History of Colour-Sergeant Lejaune

    1. Pleased that enjoyed it! It’s a rip-roaring tale all right but not exactly high class art. I think the most powerful thing about the story is the now familiar themes about the Legion and the desert that it cemented in the imagination. It’s been lampooned many times in comedy films too – Laurel and Hardy, the Carry-on films and Marty Feldman to name a few!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I’ve read the book and I’ve got the BBC series on DVD and I might seek out some of the others.

      Hey, I didn’t know that about Telly Savalas. 🙂 Great if it was true.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another interesting article and well painted figures. I remember the eerie empty fort start to the BBC TV series in Colour, so much like the Airfix desert fort that I still have, and my Hollywood Airfix legionaries (version 1 still my favourite but crumbling) as well as the terrific Esci figures and each company’s euphemistically known generic “Desert Warrior” opponents.

    There is a great single 54mm Airfix multipose figure to track down second hand that you would enjoy.

    I like the few Britain’s Deetail 54mm legionaries that I still have and their spirited tribesman foes. I even once had as a Birthday present the Action Man FF Legionnaire uniform. Sadly long gone … but Magnifique!

    Interesting about Le Cafard as an alternative to what’s UK gamers call The Black Dog.

    Following up the Le Cafard article links, I found an interesting French Bat D’Af fort or penal colony in North Africa called Tatahouine – any link to a certain first Star Wars Episode IV desert planet? Geek points to me! http://www.kaiserscross.com/183501/183564.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too have some of those Britains Deetail figures. Some of my favourite figures from my youth. As for the Action Man uniform – it was one of those things that I dreamt of having, but never found one!

      That’s a good site, isn’t it? The Bat D’Af article is fascinating – criminals keeping an eye on insurgents. It’s the scenario of outcasts living a hell out in the middle of nowhere which has been a rich source of material for writers and movie makers. It strikes me that your Colonel Fazackerley might well find himself in the kind of misadventure provided by the FFL in the desert.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Tragically my prized Action Man Foreign Legion uniform ended up being destroyed when I was a child by mice when our Action Men were for some reason being stored in our garage. Or they might have been camping or patrolling there. A great shame. Superb water bottle, greatcoat and FFL rifle.

        Fazackerley’s FFL career should be interesting … I shall quiz him about it when he returns from his latest expedition.

        Liked by 1 person

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