“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1939) Review
There have been seven versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel, “The Four Feathers”. At least three of them were silent films. In 1939, British producer Alexander Korda released the first sound adaptation of the novel. This version was also the first one to be filmed in color. Directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan Korda, “THE FOUR FEATHERS” starred John Clements, June Duprez, Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith.
Not only was this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” the first to feature both sound and color, it is regarded by many as the best adaptation of Mason’s novel. Fifteen years has passed since I last saw this movie. When I first saw it back in the mid-1990s, I was very impressed by this film. After seeing it fifteen years later (or more), I am still impressed. Somewhat. Granted, my admiration for the movie has dimmed slightly, but I still believe that it is a first-class movie.
Unlike Mason’s novel or the recent 2002 version, this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is not set right after General Charles Gordon’s death in 1885. Instead, the movie is set in 1895. Harry Faversham is an officer in the British Army and his regiment has been ordered to the Sudan to avenge the death of Charles “Chinese” Gordon from ten years ago. On the eve of its departure, British officer Harry Faversham (Clements) resigns his commission. As a result, his three friends and fellow officers, Captain John Durrance (Richardson) and Lieutenants Burroughs (Donald Grey) and Willoughby (Jack Allen), express their contempt of his supposed cowardice by each sending him a white feather attached to a calling card. When his fiancée, Ethne Burroughs (Duprez), says nothing in his defense, he bitterly demands one more from her. She refuses, but he plucks one from her fan and leaves. While the officers go off to war, he admits to his old acquaintance Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley) that he is a coward and must make amends. He departs for Egypt. There, he adopts the disguise of a native with the help of Dr. Harraz (Henry Oscar), choosing to play a despised mute Sangali to hide his lack of knowledge of the language.
What can I saw about “THE FOUR FEATHERS”? For one, it is a beautiful looking film. I understand that it had been filmed in both Great Britain and in Sudan. And photographers Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile did a beautiful job in capturing the scope and color (via Technicolor) of both countries. It was not surprising for me to learn that the film had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. I also found Miklos Rozsa’s score, Vincent Korda’s uncredited production design, W. Percy Day’s matte paintings, along with Godfrey Brennan and René Hubert’s costume designs impressive, as well.
But I am merely procrastinating. I have not discussed the meat of the movie – namely the story and the acting. Well, I might as well start with the first. R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis created a solid adaptation of Mason’s novel. They made a few changes. As I had stated before, they set the movie in the 1890s, enabling them to incorporate the British victory at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898 into the plot. The novel was set around the mid 1880s. The character of Abou Fatma (featured in both the novel and in other versions, including the 2002 movie) is not this film. But these changes did not hurt the plot. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” still turned out to be a rousing action-adventure film. When I first saw the movie back in the early 1990s, the patriotic jingoism surrounding the British Empire did not bother me at all. Fifteen years later, it did. Somewhat. I have seen plenty of old films from the 1930s and 1940s that painted the British Empire in a positive light. Unfortunately, this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” did so at a level that sometimes came off as a little too heavy-handed for my taste. I suspect that the reason behind the three screenwriters’ decision to set the movie in the mid-to-late 1890s in order to allow the movie to feature an actual British imperialist victory – Omdurman – and a chance to wave the flag. The movie did question the idea of what constituted bravery or cowardice. But once Harry arrived in the Sudan, the topic never reared its ugly head again. Hmmm. Too bad.
The movie featured a solid, first-rate cast. John Clements gave an excellent performance as Harry Faversham, who is emotionally torn between his aversion to the idea of serving as a British officer and continuing his family’s military tradition. My only quibble with his performance was that I found his . . . ‘portrayal’ of a mute Sangali exaggerated. The other first-rate performance featured in this movie came from Ralph Richardson, who portrayed Faversham’s best friend and romantic rival, Jack Durrance. I was especially impressed by how Richardson conveyed Jack’s desperation to hide his blindness from his command and his hopeless infatuation with Harry’s fiancée, Ethne Burroughs. Who, by the way, was portrayed by June Duprez. Ms. Duprez gave a charming performance. But aside from two scenes – one that featured her discovery of Harry’s resignation from the Army and her regret for pushing him away – Miss Duprez’s Ethne seemed to lack depth. Well known British character actor, C. Aubrey Smith gave a sprightly and funny performance as Ethne’s father, the irascible General Burroughs who continues to live in the past glories of his service during the Crimean War. In fact, the movie’s running joke turned out to be the General’s embellishments of his favorite war story – the Battle of Balaclava.
When one comes down to it, the 1939 version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a rousing and entertaining tale about a disgraced British Army officer who finds redemption through his private heroic acts to protect his former colleagues and friends during the last year of the Mahdist War. My main quibble with the movie centered around the script written by R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis. Granted, they did a first-rate job of adapting Mason’s novel. But aside from the first third of the movie in which the script briefly questioned society’s idea of bravery, the story seemed lack depth and in the end, came off as a propaganda film for the British Empire. However, Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile’s Technicolor photography of both England and the Sudan are absolutely breathtaking and deserving of an Oscar nomination. The movie featured a solid cast that included excellent performances by John Clements and Ralph Richardson. And Zoltan Korda kept it all together with his skillful direction that featured some excellent dramatic moments and great action.
I realize that many consider Korda’s version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” to be the best of the seven already made. This is an opinion that I cannot honestly share. It is also an opinion I have not harbored in the past decade. It is a little too jingoistic for my taste. And aside from the Harry Faversham and Jack Durrance characters, most of the other characters do not strike me as possessing enough depth. But it is a first-rate action-adventure film. And it is easy to see why so many fans still love it after seventy-three years.