Our story does not begin in the Sahara Desert, although that is where it ends up, but let us travel back a few years to the English country manor of the Geste family, where the head of the house, Sir Hector (Trevor Howard), is anxiously awaiting the birth of his son. But the doctor has both good tidings and bad: the wife has died - "What are the bad tidings?" asks Sir Hector - and he is now the father to a bouncing baby girl. He is outraged, he has no use for a daughter, so is forced to visit the local orphanage to find a son to adopt, and settles on the one who looks to be the best fighter. He shall become Beau Geste (Michael York)... and he has a twin brother too.
Except that though they are identical twins, Beau is more identical than Digby, because Digby is played by Marty Feldman, the brains behind this spoof of P.C. Wren's classic novel of adventure. Feldman had been doing well in Hollywood thanks to his association with Mel Brooks and some well-received television work there, so naturally he would be awarded a movie of his own to create. The result was this, an irreverent to a fault send up that stuck as close to the original as packing in all those gags would allow, but sadly it was not as welcomed as Feldman had hoped, as it garnered some pretty terrible reviews and the public did not exactly flock to it, though it did respectable business otherwise.
Feldman blamed post-production interference by the studio for this, as the film was re-edited against his wishes, but what did survive was not a bad effort by any means. If anything, more jokes hit the mark than fall flat, and if not every punchline or item of slapstick strikes the funny bone, then there is an abundance of truly hilarious bits that make this well worth your while, especially if you count yourself as a comedy fan. Feldman cast himself as the idealistic but put upon hero, always in the shadow of Beau who he looks up to, and the only character in this who has a sense of integrity as everyone else is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, as if any thoughts of honour or probity will hold you back.
Or get you into all sorts of trouble should you tread the moral path, anyway. This could have resulted in a cynical work, but Feldman's British sensibility worked up a sense of sympathy for the little guy he played, who was always endeavouring to do the right thing while those around him saw through the sham of heroism. The Foreign Legion looms large, naturally, as Beau enters their ranks after the precious sapphire owned by the family goes missing and he is forced to act out of shame until it is returned (and when we find out who took the gemstone, this bit of the plot makes no sense if you think about it). Digby refuses to talk about his brother's whereabouts, and winds up in prison.
Though he does escape to join his sibling in the Legion, and all the jokes about the desert that here are done so much better than they were in Carry On Follow That Camel ensue. Feldman amassed an impressive array of talent, with Ann-Margret as the Gestes' opportunistic stepmother relishing the chance to be funny, Peter Ustinov as the sadistic Markov, leader of the troops with a false leg (which doubles as a gun, thirty years before Rose McGowan's in Planet Terror), Spike Milligan as the elderly and possibly demented butler, and James Earl Jones sporting an excellent cut glass English accent as the leader of the attacking tribe. Every cast member was on top form, and Feldman rewarded them with some engagingly daft humour, giving himself some pretty good scenes as well (his bit with Gary Cooper in the original Beau Geste is a nice sequence). It's a pity that he felt stung by the way this turned out, because more often than not it was one of the funniest things he ever did. Music by John Morris.