“…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
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.
Such was the terrific quality of the sculpting that it was possible to reveal a face of real character.
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”.
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.
…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.
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)
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.
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:
Beau Geste (1939)
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.
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)
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)
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.
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!
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?
My Artizan Designs set of 24 French Foreign Legion figures is now completed! The final 8 figures included an officer in a beige tropical-style uniform with blue puttees looking as though he’s about to shoot a legionnaire who has refused to march any further! I suspect that my painting approach doesn’t necessarily get the very best out of this scale of figure, but I’m still nonetheless quite satisfied with these final figures. I’ve always wanted to produce some larger scale foreign legion troops, so this set has fulfilled that wish very nicely.
Ultimately, I’m a 1/72 scale man, I think. It’s my first love and so it will probably be back to the little guys in plastic for my next work, I think.
Aside from painting these Foreign Legion chaps, I recently had planned a visit out to a military museum but with a last minute change of plan found myself on a very pleasant visit this weekend to Belton House in Lincolnshire. For centuries this was the seat of the wealthy Brownlow and Cust family. Even here I found a handful of military-related nuggets to feed my interest. There was once a WWI machine gun corps based in the grounds and I scooped up some postcards of this. Also on display was a Grenadier Guards officer uniform and I spied a painting of King Edward VIII in the uniform of a colonel of an Indian regiment, Jacob’s Horse. All of which nicely gives a hint as to the direction of my next project…
Anyway, for now I’m presenting my “March or Die!” set of French Foreign Legionnaires:
My daughter’s been poorly all week with an infection, so I’ve been at home with her doing far more caring than painting. In my quiet moments, however, I have been reflecting on the impact that the French Foreign Legion have had on popular culture.
I have a DVD copy of the BBC TV series on Beau Geste made in 1982 and starring Benedict Taylor, which I greatly enjoyed seeing when I was a young boy. Even if the desert scenes look suspiciously like they were filmed in a disused quarry in southern England rather than the scorched Saharan sands, it mattered not one bit with me. The uniforms were accurate and as a depiction of the regiment it was very convincing. It wasn’t the first interpretation on-screen. Three films have been made on the story of Beau Geste; 1926 (a silent movie), in 1939 (starring Gary Cooper) and in 1966. In 1929, even the great thespian Laurence Olivier played the eponymous role in a stage version which enjoyed only a limited run.
The Beau Geste tale has been parodied by many over the years, notably the “Carry On” films and in 1931 by Laurel and Hardy in “Beau Hunks” (with Jean Harlow as the woman they all joined ‘to forget’) and later again in a their remake called The Flying Deuces.
Aside from the retelling of the story of Beau Geste, and the 1977 movie “March or Die” which I’ve previously mentioned in this blog, La Legion has been the subject of a spoof in a long-running comic strip in the UK called “The adventures of Legionnaire Beau Peep”. The strip sends up many of the well-known motifs that appeared in Beau Geste. In a twist on the common theme of joining the legion to forget a lost love, Beau Peep has apparently joined the legion to escape his somewhat intimidating wife!
Now: my figures. I’ve noticed that these metal figures seem to reflect the light in photographs more than plastic figures, so you’ll have to believe me when I say they are much more matt looking in reality. My Saharan desert sand has come through the post and I think it looks rather good. Compared to the often hideously complexity of, let’s say Napoleonic hussars, painting my French Foreign Legionnaires is a fairly quick process. One big blue greatcoat, a white covered kepi and white trousers makes for about 90% of the figure. Consequently, I find I am already tackling the final 8 of the 24 figures in the Artizan designs set.
Unfortunately, just as my daughter seems to be better, it’s now my wife that seems to have picked up the infection! I can’t cope with it any more. It’s enough to make me run off and join the Foreign Legion…
“If the Legion doesn’t get you, the desert will. If the desert doesn’t, the Arabs will. And if the Arabs don’t, then I will. I don’t know which is worse.” Major Foster in the 1977 movie ‘March or Die’.
I’d spent some free time in the day yesterday painting my Artizan legionnaires, which are progressing nicely. After everyone had gone to bed, I decided to watch a movie and what could be more appropriate than the 1977 movie on the French Foreign Legion “March or Die!”?
Digging out my DVD copy, I sat down and watched it into the small hours. As with other narratives on the FFL, the familiar motifs were there; the brutality and loneliness; the wide expanse of desert sands; a band of desperate social outcasts drawn together by ‘la legion’; and of course the ever-present menace of the fierce Tuareg tribes.
The Legion marching song was a common musical presence in the film, and is something that has been going through my head ever since receiving the figures through the post. All together now…
Tiens, voilà du boudin, voilà du boudin, voilà du boudin
Pour les Alsaciens, les Suisses et les Lorrains.
Pour les Belges, y en a plus, pour les Belges, y en a plus,
Ce sont des tireurs au cul. (bis)
March or Die, as with Beau Geste, is a good yarn rather than a work of art. Nevertheless, it was hugely enjoyable to watch, the scenery was terrific and it was an inspiration to keep me going with painting those figures.
Ah, the figures. I spend a probably unhealthy amount of time wondering whether my painting technique for 28mm figures is a successful one. I’m sure there are better or more effective ways of painting at this scale. Don’t get me wrong, I am pleased with them, but I sense that I could make them look better with more 28mm experience. I’m still experimenting and finding out new things as I go along at this scale but the first batch of legionnaires are virtually done. I’m now just waiting for some desert-type scenic sand to come through the post so that these chaps will be suitably Saharan.
I am Sgt. Markoff. I make soldiers out of scum like you, and I don’t do it gently. You’re the sloppiest looking lot I’ve ever seen. It’s up to me to prevent you from becoming a disgrace to the regiment. And I will prevent that if I have to kill half of you with work. But the half that lives will be soldiers – I promise you! (Beau Geste film of 1939)
Announcing a new project in Suburban Militarism; the French Foreign Legion!
Being larger figures than my more usual 20mm plastics, these 28mm metal figures from Artizan Designs have the classic look of blue greatcoats and white cloth-covered kepi, perfect for keeping that hot desert sun off their heads. The figures came at a discount for buying a set of 24, which included numerous poses, a bugler and three command figures.
I mostly seem to paint Napoleonic figures and I’m a member of the Victorian Military Society dedicated to the study of the British army from that era. So, why on earth have I opted to paint “la legion etrangere”?
As so often, it’s a case of indulging a childhood passion. The exotic tale of Beau Geste was to blame. The book depicted the beautiful wilderness of the Sahara desert; the brave and fierce Tuareg tribesmen; the brutal sadism of Sergeant Lejuane; an entire regiment of lost social outcasts; and included a beguiling scene of the eerily deserted Fort Zanderneuf with its garrison of dead legionnaires still at their posts. My boyhood interest led to the purchase of some Britains Deetail French Foreign Legion figures back in the 1980s, but my meagre pocket-money wouldn’t stretch to very many unfortunately!
So in buying these figures I’m making good on a promise to myself to buy lots more when I was older. With 24 of these larger scale figures to paint, I’m intending to tackle small groups at a time. I’m no expert in painting at this scale but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’ll be dipping into other projects in between tackling this one. Progress reports will be posted from time to time throughout the year but as you can see, I’ve already made a start!
Vive la legion etrangere!