The Four Feathers (1939)

Director: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason)
Stars: John Clements (Harry Faversham), Ralph Richardson (Captain John Durrance), C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs), June Duprez (Ethne Burroughs), Allan Jeayes (General Faversham), Jack Allen (Lieutenant Willoughby), Donald Gray (Peter Burroughs), Frederick Culley (Dr. Sutton), Clive Baxter (Young Harry Faversham), Robert Rendel (Colonel), Archibald Batty (Adjutant), Derek Elphinstone (Lieutenant Parker), Hal Walters (Joe), Norman Pierce (Sergeant Brown), Henry Oscar (Dr . Harraz), John Laurie (The Khalifa)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1939
Country: U.K.
The Four Feathers Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Four FeathersZoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers was not the first time A.E.W. Mason’s popular 1902 colonialist adventure novel had been adapted to the screen, nor would it be the last, although for many it is and always will be the definitive version. Following three silent-era adaptations produced in 1915, 1921, and 1929, Korda’s film was the first to use synchronized sound and it was also the first shot in Technicolor, a particularly spectacular visual flourish given that only a handful of color films were made each year at that time (not incidentally, 1939 also saw the release of two other major Technicolor films: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind). It was also only the second time an adaptation of The Four Feathers had been produced by a British studio, which is significant given that it is a resolutely British story whose themes of cowardice, courage, and redemption are deeply rooted in British national culture, but particularly at that time, as the country stood at the brink of World War II (the film debuted mere months before the war officially started).

The film was adapted by R.C. Sherriff, a playwright who had worked on several Universal horror films in the early ’30s and had recently cowritten the beloved Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Sherriff’s script benefits from a lengthier running time (originally 130 minutes, later trimmed to 115), which allows him to better follow the epic storyline of Mason’s novel (the silent-film versions were all decidedly truncated in the narrative department, with the longest of them, the 1929 Paramount production directed by the future King Kong team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, ran a mere 80 minutes). The story centers around Harry Faversham (John Clements), a young officer in the British army who resigns his post on the eve of his regiment’s deployment to the Sudan to aid Sir Herbert Kitchener in the Mahdist War in the mid-1890s (Sherriff altered the time frame for the film from the novel, whose main action takes place in 1882 during Sir Garnet Wolseley’s 1882 battle in Egypt to suppress the Urabi Pasha uprising). Harry, whose comes from a long and proud lineage of military leaders, is branded a coward by his fellow officers, each of whom sends him a symbolic white feather. His resignation also costs him his fiancée Ethne (June Duprez), whose father General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith) is a blustery old warhorse given to exaggerated stories about his exploits in the Crimean War.

The exact reasoning for Harry’s resigning his post are left somewhat vague, as he gives different reasons at different times. Early on he claims that he never wanted to be in the military at all and that he only joined to please his father, who is now dead. He tells Ethne that he thinks that British colonialist campaigns are ghastly and wasteful and that he wants to focus on being with her, raising a family, and managing his family’s estate. But, later he confesses that his primary reason for resigning was indeed cowardice, but not the kind of cowardice we might assume. Rather than being afraid of violent death in war, his real fear is that he would cave during battle and fail those around him. In other words, he is afraid of cowardice itself, although he had never actually demonstrated it, especially given the courage it took for him to reject his family heritage and buck social pressures to live up to his father’s expectations.

Ashamed that he is seen as a coward by everyone around him, Harry takes the drastic measure of traveling to the Middle East, disguising himself as a mute Arab, and following his regiment with the hopes that he will be of assistance in some way. The rather unformed nature of his plan has always been one of the weakest links in the narrative, although everything ultimately plays out in a manner than allows him to demonstrate his heroism and courage and therefore be redeemed in the eyes of those who turned their backs on him. He saves his friend and romantic rival Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), who has been blinded by sunstroke and left for dead after a massive battle in the desert, not once but twice. Later, he is instrumental in freeing his friends Lieutenant Willoughby (Jack Allen) and Peter Burroughs (Donald Gray), who have been taken as prisoners of war, and leading the subsequent assault that ensures the British re-conquest of capital city of Khartoum.

The Four Feathers was produced by Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born movie mogul who was responsible for many of the biggest and most elaborate British films of the 1930s and 1940s. Korda’s production company, London Films, was a familial affair, with his younger brother Zoltan directing many of the films and the youngest brother Vincent providing the art direction and set design. The Four Feathers is a particularly intriguing Korda production because it marks the high point of the company’s so-called “Empire” cycle of the late 1930s, which also includes Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (1937), and The Drum (1938). Like those films, The Four Feathers’ backdrop of British colonialism can’t help but draw attention to the political and ideological divides between the brothers, particularly Alexander, who was conservative and resolutely patriotic toward his adoptive country, and Zoltan, who had socialist leanings and tended to sympathize with the colonized, rather than the colonizers.

One can see the sometimes contradictory influence of both men on the film, as it clearly celebrates British military might and bravery during the extensive battle scenes (all of which were shot on location in the Sudan and featured hundreds of extras), yet also makes a subtle mockery of militant military pride, best exemplified in General Burroughs’ self-aggrandizing tales of battle and repeated aphorisms about “the old days” when “war was war” (as if it could be anything else). The film is also deeply divided in its view of colonialism, as Harry blatantly condemns it in his speech to Ethne, yet the narrative has been purposely moved forward 10 years from the novel so that it may end with British colonial victory at the Battle of Omdurman.

The film’s internal tensions are what make it interesting, even if much of its story and style feels dated and even a bit creaky at this point. Due to the lumbering nature of the massive three-strip Technicolor cameras, there is little movement of the frame outside of pans and tilts. Korda largely makes up for the inexpressive camera by filling the frame itself with conspicuous production design, from the aforementioned desert battle scenes, to the luxurious interiors of the various British estates, to the nighttime military parade that marks the deployment of Harry’s regiment. This is not to say that there is no real artistry to the film, though, as Korda finds some intriguing and subtle means of conveying emotional turmoil, best exemplified in an early scene in which young Harry (Clive Baxter) lights a candle and makes the slow march up the stairs of the family manor under the intense gaze of his military ancestors forever enshrined in massive oil paintings on the wall.

The film’s visual spectacle also helps to draw our attention away from some of the performances, which are widely divergent. As Harry, John Clements is too rigid and unappealing; while he is meant to be in moral crisis, the pinched nature of his performance makes him feel remote and therefore unsympathetic, a real liability given that his character is a complex mess of conflicting desires, emotions, and fears that is meant to form the film’s moral center. Ralph Richardson, on the other hand, is the opposite, as he shapes his performance in a particularly theatrical manner that, while not always convincing, at least has energy and a few moments of genuine brilliance (his conflicted reaction to learning that it was Harry who saved him at the end of the film is beautifully nuanced and moving, which is exactly the opposite of his overdramatic reaction early in the film when he learns that Harry and Ethne are engaged). The only actor who consistently shines is C. Aubrey Smith, a veteran character actor who brings to General Burroughs an amusing sense of bluster that is unfortunately used to set him up for Harry’s final act of courage, thus bringing the film to its weightless “all’s well that ends well” conclusion.

The Four Feathers Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Four Feathers is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film historian Charles Drazin
  • Video interview with David Korda, son of director Zoltán Korda
  • A Day at Denham, 1939 promotional short film
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film critic Michael Sragow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 11, 2011

    Criterion’s 1080p high-definition transfer, which was made from a 35mm internegative at the BFI National Archive, is a notable improvement over the previously available MGM DVD. The image has more depth and texture to it in high-def, plus the colors look richer, especially those bright red coats that Alexander Korda insisted the officers wear at the engagement party even though in reality they would have been wearing blue. After digital restoration via MTI’s DRS system, PixelFarm’s PFClean system, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system, the image is remarkably clean, bearing only the slightest speckles and an occasional hairline. The image is somewhat soft due to the three-strip Technicolor process, but that is to be expected. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from an optical track negative and digitally restored, and it sounds clear and hiss-free.
    Film historian Charles Drazin, author of Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul, contributes a thoughtful and engaging audio commentary that does a fantastic job of contextualizing the film historically and aesthetically, as well as within the larger body of work produced by the Korda brothers. Also on the disc is an informative, and at times emotional, 23-minute interview with David Korda, the eldest son of director Zoltan Korda; A Day at Denham, a 10-minute promotional film from 1939 about the London Films studio at Denham that includes footage of Zoltán Korda on the set of The Four Feathers; and the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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