The Four Feathers (1939) dir. Zoltan Korda
Starring: John Clements, Ralph Richardson, June Duprez, C. Aubrey Smith
By Greg Klymkiw
I wonder if it's better, at least with some movies, to hold childhood memories dear and assume those same feelings of joy will NEVER be rekindled in adulthood. Zoltan Korda's celebrated 1939 film adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's turn-of-the-century Boys Own-styled novel of war and redemption during Britain's colonial struggles during the late 19th century in Egypt and Sudan, was a movie near and dear to my heart. Seeing it now, I can SEE why I loved it. I just don't FEEL it anymore.
Mason's book spawned numerous adaptations for the silver screen, and of those I've seen, I still believe it's the best. Don Sharp directed a low-budget version in the 70s with a great cast, but sub-par production value and Shekhar (Bandit Queen, Elizabeth) Kapur generated a dull, annoyingly revisionist version with the late Heath Ledger in 2002. What these subsequent versions lack, frankly, are the stunningly directed battle scenes of Korda's film (Sharp's were proficient, Kapur's a mess) and, surprisingly, the Kapur offers less food for thought in terms of the notions of imperialism and war.
It's a simple tale. Harry Faversham (John Clements) is descended from an upper-crust British family of war-mongers and against his better judgement, he follows in their footsteps. On the eve of Britain going to war with the Dervishes in Egypt and Sudan, he resigns his post. His three best friends, military men all, send him three feathers - signifying that they believe him to be a coward. His fiance, Ethne (June Duprez) and her father General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith) are disgusted with his decision. Ethne always loved Harry's best friend, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) anyway, so she also bestows Harry with a feather symbolizing his cowardice and breaks off her betrothal (a marriage of convenience to please her father who now has nothing but contempt for his son-in-law-to-be). Harry, is not a coward, however. Once the war begins in earnest, he secretly journeys to the middle east in disguise and sacrifices everything to rescue his three friends from the hands of the Dervishes.
This is, purely and simply, a great story! Great! As a movie, it would take a total bonehead to mess it up and Zoltan Korda (along with legendary producer Alexander Korda) render it with skill, production value and impeccable taste. So why, you might ask, does the movie not send me soaring to the same heights I ascended as a young boy? It's a reasonable question and one I find difficult to answer. Allow me to try.
The movie opens with an astounding battle montage that lays the historical groundwork for what follows. So far, so good. We're then introduced to Harry as a young man and get a sense of of his intelligent, sensitive, introspective nature - at odds with his family and those around him. Leaping ten years later, we find him on the cusp of marriage and war. When he resigns his commission, he makes it clear to both his superiors and fiance that his dream is to use his wealth to HELP people, not to engage in senseless war (especially this one which, is rooted in both vengeance and the maintenance of colonial exploitation). When the movie settles into Harry coming to the decision to assist his comrades and begin the long, dangerous journey into the Middle East, the movie begins to slow down - not so much due to pace, but because a number of interesting elements that have been introduced take a back seat to the proceedings.
Korda seems to settle into a weird auto-pilot here. We get all the basic plot details by rote, but with little passion. Oh, there's plenty of spirit infused in the surface action, but by abandoning the very interesting thematic and character-rooted ideas of a man struggling with the "values" of colonialism is precisely what drags the movie down. This theme is not one rooted in the same kind of revisionism applied to contemporary adaptations of period work, but is, in fact, anchored in both the source material and the first third of the screenplay. Even more odd, is that we don't adequately get a sense of how Harry's friendship with the three men is what pushes him forward. He pushes forward because the plot would have it so.
As a kid, this WAS good enough. Alas, as an adult, it's not - especially since the groundwork of some very interesting and ahead of its time notions of anti-colonialism are introduced, but dropped and/or just glanced upon. Plot takes over, but there are layers - already and consciously set-up - that are begging to be plumbed.
When the film shifts its focus to his old pal John and we're treated to an astounding night attack sequence upon the British by the Dervishes, the movie springs miraculously back to life. When Harry catches up to John and the arduous rescue sequence across the desert begins, the movie slows down again. This time, it's a similar problem. Korda hits all the plot points, but seldom rests long enough to explore the true resonance of the tale.
There are several more rescue and action scenes - including a battle sequence that is clearly one of the best ever committed to film, so this is not to say I was disappointed in seeing the movie again. On the contrary, it's still a fine story and there's enough by way of spectacular derring-do with a huge cast, great costumes and stunning technicolor photography. The problem, perhaps, is all mine - assuming it's possible to recreate childhood wonder with EVERY movie I loved as a kid.
It's not the movie's fault. Korda ultimately delivered what audiences at the time wanted. After all, the world was on the cusp of war with Hitler. Propaganda in all things war-related was starting to heat up.
Historically, in terms of the British film industry, this movie and subsequent British films thrived because of the Act of Parliament passed in 1927 which instituted a stringent exhibition quota that lasted for ten years and was responsible for developing a vibrant indigenous film industry in Britain. Sure, there were bombs and it also gave way to what was referred to as the "quota quickie" (low budget B-movies), but it helped the Korda family establish a great British studio and generate product that, while expensive and unable to recoup costs entirely in Britain, did so spectacularly in the international marketplace. It also gave rise to consistent output from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and The Powell-Pressburger Archers' team.
The Four Feathers was beloved the world over - for decades. Certainly, as a child, it did what it was supposed to do and as an adult, it has plenty of great things going for it. It's a good movie. Don't mind me.
"The Four Feathers" is now available on a Criterion Blu-ray version. The source material seems to have needed quite a brush-up and, at the very least, the colour is spectacular. The uncompressed mono sound is a joy - proving once again that a great mono mix is as spectacular as anything. There's a bevy of decent extras in this package including an audio commentary by film historian Charles Drazin, a new video interview with David Korda, son of director Zoltán Korda, "A Day at Denham", a short film from 1939 featuring footage of Zoltán Korda on the set of "The Four Feathers", a trailer and an essay by Michael Sragow.