Friday, April 29, 2016

The Four Feathers ( 1939 )

Every generation of the Favershams have had a military hero, but even as a boy Harry Faversham thought war futile and did not wish to follow in his illustrious family's footsteps. As his father explained to a comrade, "I send him to the best army school in England, spend half my time telling him about his famous ancestors and what do you think? I found him this morning reading poetry.... Shelley of all people! "   

As Harry ( John Clements ) matured, his viewpoint of war did not alter, but not wishing to displease his father, he enters the British Army. However, while saying goodbye to his fiancee Ethne ( June Duprez ), he reconsiders his decision and on the eve of the day his company is to leave to join Kitchener's army in Sudan, he resigns his commission. Harry feels that his future with Ethne and living a peaceful life in England is more important than fighting a hopeless battle in the desert.   
"The futility of this idiotic Egyptian adventure and the madness of it all, the ghastly waste of time that we can never have again!"  

His commanding officer is very displeased with him, as are his three boyhood friends who each send him a white feather, symbolizing cowardice. This does not affect him so much as does hearing his sweetheart agree with them:   

"You were not born free Harry, and nor was I. We were born into a tradition, a code which we must obey even if we do not believe in it.....and we must obey because the pride and happiness of everyone around us depends upon our obedience."

With passion and anger in him he plucks off a white feather from her fan, and adds them to the group, making four feathers. He secretly vows to prove his courage to Ethne, his companions ...and himself. The way he goes about this is above and beyond the call of duty. This is where the romance ends, and the adventure begins.

During the late 1930s many British Imperialism-themed adventure spectacles were released, but Alexander Korda's The Four Feathers - released in 1939, that magnificent year of movie-making - is by far the best.

Filmed on location in the Middle East in glorious Technicolor, we follow Harry on various escapades throughout Egypt, climaxing in a battle at Obdurman, before we return to England for the "showdown". For a film that's not even two full hours in length, it manages to squeeze in quite a bit of story and a lot of excitement, as well as a tender sub-romance involving Captain John Durrance ( Ralph Richardson ), one of Harry's three friends, and Ethne. 

The beloved character actor C. Aubrey Smith, plays one of his usual "bombastic gentleman" roles, that of Ethne's father, a retired general who likes to recount a tale of his bravery using the fruit and nuts from the dinner table.

"Now the Crimean ...... war was war in those days, and men were men!"   

The Four Feathers was released on DVD several years ago ( in an excellent Blu-Ray Criterion edition ), but has since become quite rare. Most of Korda's films haven't even had a DVD release, so it's a wonder that this version was even printed. 

With spectacular filming, breathtaking color, a sweeping Miklos Rozsa score, thrilling battle scenes ( that have cropped up again as clips in many other films ), and excellent cast performances, this is a real gem. The story is not a new one, however. 

"The Four Feathers" was originally a famous novel written by A.E.W. Mason in 1902, and its first screen-telling was made in 1915. It was remade in 1929, with the dashing Richard Arlen and Fay Wray, Clive Brook and William Powell. 

After the blockbuster Korda version, it was made yet again by RKO ( inferiorly ) in 1955, and retitled Storm Over the Nile starring Anthony Steele, Lawrence Harvey and Ian Carmichael. Ah, but who wants to stop at four versions?..... in 1977 the made-for-TV Four Feathers was aired starring Beau Bridges, Robert Powell, Jane Seymour and Simon Ward. And last ( but I'm certain not the end of this tale ) in 2002 with Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson in the starring roles. 

Unless you have a passion for comparison, don't even bother with these other versions, because, to this day, Korda's 1939 The Four Feathers remains the crown-jewel of them all. 


  1. Breathtaking location filming, a story that absolutely breaks the heart, and unsurpassed adventure. What a movie! What a great review!

    And don't you always think of poor Ralph Richardson when you are out on a particularly sunny day without a hat?

    1. Ha! I certainly do. I thought that was particularly careless of Ralph to walk in that heat with no sunglasses. ;-)

  2. If Miklos Rosza did the music, it's bound to be worth it just for that. Gotta see if the library has this one. I've seen the Heath Ledger one, but that's it.

    1. I hope you do find it, Quiggy, but it's a tough one to locate. Let me know what you think of it then. Those Brits knew how to weave a good yarn.

  3. I recently wrote an as-yet unpublished mini-review of THE FOUR FEATHERS. What struck me during this latest viewing was how good John Clements was in the lead role. I was surprised to learn he really didn't make many movies.

    1. I was just watching The Thief of Bagdad today and wondering the same thing about John Justice. Great actor and yet he made so few films. I'm looking forward to reading your mini-review.

  4. i love old movies like this and remembering simpler times. I just had all of my grandparent's old videos digitized by ScanDigital. Its so great to be able to go back and relive those memories with them.

  5. Some years ago I was able to obtain a copy of this on VHS video. I played it for my father, who lost his much loved elder brother Stan in 1940 in North Africa. There's a scene about 2/3 of the way through the movie where four soldiers walk out onto the bank of the Nile. One looks round and says, "Look, there's an Arab. He's got an officer." That soldier was my uncle, one of the Cheshire Regiment being used as extras.