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The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers(1939)

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teaser The Four Feathers (1939)

SYNOPSIS

Harry Faversham grows up in a British military household that puts a high premium on unwavering duty and service to country. He enters the army to please his stern father, but on the eve of his regiment's deployment to the Sudan to fight in a war Harry doesn't believe in, he resigns his commission. As Harry is explaining his position to his fiance, Ethne Burroughs, daughter of the distinguished General Burroughs, he is delivered a package containing three white feathers, symbols of cowardice, one each from his three friends and fellow officers: Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Willoughby (Jack Allen), and Burroughs (Donald Gray). Seeing the disappointment on Ethne's face, he adds a fourth feather. He then sets out to prove himself by traveling to the Sudan, disguising himself as a mute Arab, and saving his three friends from certain death, returning a white feather to each of them.

Producer: Alexander Korda
Associate Producer: Irving Asher
Director: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay: R. C. Sherriff, with additional dialogue by Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis; based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: Henry Cornelius
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Costume Design: Godfrey Brennan, Rene Hubert
Musical Director: Muir Mathieson
Cast: 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).
C-130m.

Why THE FOUR FEATHERS is Essential

Easily the best of several film versions of A. E. W. Mason's rousing novel of redemption set during the height of British Imperialism, The Four Feathers (1939) is also considered one of the great triumphs of Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, and consequently, of all British cinema. Aside from the widely hailed color cinematography, location filming, and thrilling action scenes, this version of The Four Feathers is also remembered for career-defining performances by several important British actors, including Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith.

The Four Feathers is unabashed in its glorification of The Empire, and like their previous films Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938), it was a family affair for the Korda brothers. Zoltan Korda directed the picture and Vincent Korda provided Art Direction, while Alexander oversaw the entire endeavor for London Film Productions. The Technicolor cinematography, hailed as the most naturalistic to that point, was credited to Georges Perinal, though additional photography was by Osmond Borradaile and Robert Krasker. Borradaile and Zoltan Korda shot most of the exterior scenes for The Four Feathers on location in the Sudan, resulting in stunning images. The footage was striking enough that it was often reused as stock footage, appearing in such later films as Zarak (1956), Master of the World (1961), and East of Sudan (1964), a film about the original Khartoum uprising.

Many classic films require a certain adjustment in perspective to fully appreciate them in the context of the time in which they were released. This is certainly true in the case of The Four Feathers. In our more jaded era, notions of honor, loyalty, and bravery do not, perhaps, carry the weight they did in 1939. A greater leap is required to swallow the engrained attitudes of racism and colonial superiority that even at the time of the film's release were becoming outmoded. And surely in our current climate of culture clashes and crisis in the Middle East, the depiction of rabid, bloodthirsty Arabs is a glaring and outdated stereotype. But context is everything, and for a once proud but rapidly diminishing British empire plunged into war, The Four Feathers spoke to the belief that the use of force could be a positive thing in liberating oppressed peoples and that an individual could put aside his own political philosophies for the greater good of comrades and country.

Even though A.E.W. Mason's book displayed some mild criticism of the British involvement in North Africa, it was ultimately a tribute to British military might, a boost to the nation's pride and a natural attraction for Alexander Korda, whose output as the leading British independent film producer of his time often reflected a high regard for his adopted country's history and traditions. As film critic-historian David Thomson has pointed out about the ongoing cinematic project of the Korda brothers, Alexander and Zoltan, their work displayed "that incongruous sympathy of one lost empire [the Austro-Hungarian Empire of their birth] for another fast dying." The Four Feathers was arguably their staunchest expression of that.

Alexander Korda employed several military advisors on The Four Feathers to ensure historical accuracy of the period. He did not, however, allow such accuracy to interfere with showmanship. Lead actor John Clements, interviewed by Kulik, recalled shooting a scene where he and Ralph Richardson were costumed as officers attending a ball in a private residence. Uniformed by the best Savile Row tailors, the advisors correctly instructed that the uniforms be blue. Korda reached the set and said, "...'what is this blue uniform?' And the military colonel, or whatever he was, said, 'But that's correct. This is a private house, not in the mess.' 'But this is Technicolor!!' Korda said, and the whole thing was changed and we were all dressed in red uniforms.'"

A. E. W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers has proven to be an ever-popular movie property, oft-filmed on both sides of the Atlantic. There were three versions in the silent era, beginning with an American version in 1915, followed by a British film in 1921. The third was also one of the last major studio silent productions, a lavish Merian C. Cooper film for Paramount Pictures in 1929. Co-directed by Lothar Mendes and Ernest B. Schoedsack, this version featured Richard Arlen as Harry Faversham, Fay Wray as Ethne, and Clive Brook as Lt. Durrance. The directing credit for the 1955 version of the story, Storm Over the Nile, was split between Terence Young and Zoltan Korda. The London Films production was a near shot-for-shot remake utilizing the R. C. Sherriff screenplay as well and large chucks of the 1939 film, including most of the final battle sequence. The film starred Anthony Steel as Faversham and Laurence Harvey as Durrance. A television adaptation followed in 1977. The latest theatrical version, directed by Shekhar Kapur in 2002, gives more of a voice to Faversham's Sudanese guide, but is otherwise not the revisionist take on the story that many expected.

by Rob Nixon & John Miller

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teaser The Four Feathers (1939)

The enduring appeal of The Four Feathers and the type of adventure story it represents is evident in the number of times it was filmed prior to this (1915, 1921, 1929) and in the remakes that were made since: Storm Over the Nile (1955), co-directed by Zoltan Korda, who also produced with brother Alexander (uncredited); a 1977 TV version with Beau Bridges as Harry and Jane Seymour as Ethne; and the most recent version, in 2002, starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson.

The same year as this version was released saw similar movies with imperial adventure themes: Gunga Din (1939), starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen as British soldiers in India with Joan Fontaine as Fairbanks's fiance; and Beau Geste (1939), with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Susan Hayward. The latter movie had an earlier silent version (1926, with Ronald Colman) and two later ones (1966 and a British TV miniseries in 1982). It was also spoofed in The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977). Gunga Din was recently remade as an animated feature.

In an interview, Marty Feldman said it was really The Four Feathers he was thinking of when he made his parody The Last Remake of Beau Geste.

Other films have depended heavily on stories of the British army fighting the heathen hordes at the farthest fringes of the empire, a plot device that has apparently long outlived the importance of the United Kingdom as a world power, e.g., The Charge of the Light Brigade (1898, 1912, 1936, 1968) and Zulu (1964).

The British imperial adventure, of which The Four Feathers is considered a prime example, has been spoofed a number of times, most notably in the "Flashman" novels of George MacDonald Fraser, one of which was made by director Richard Lester into the satirical film Royal Flash (1975), starring Malcolm McDowell and Alan Bates.

The true historical backstory of The Four Feathers the struggle between British Sudanese governor Gen. Charles Gordon and the Muslim leader known as the Mahdi was the basis for Khartoum (1966), with Charlton Heston as Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi.

Location footage from this film was recycled for use in a number of movies, including Zoltan Korda's remake of the story, Storm Over the Nile, Zarak (1956), Master of the World (1961), and East of Sudan (1964).

Many of A.E.W. Mason's novels, several with historical settings, were adapted to film. He lived until 1948, long enough to see most of the movies based on his work, including the Korda-produced Fire Over England (1937) and The Drum (1938). His mystery novel At the Villa Rose was filmed nearly as often as The Four Feathers: in 1920, twice in 1930 (in English and French versions), and again in 1940.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Four Feathers (1939)

Alexander Korda was married to actress Merle Oberon (whose career he helped establish) from 1939 to 1945.

Ever patriotic where his adopted country was concerned, Alexander Korda refused to produce The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) because it reflected badly on British soldiers and made some of them appear willing to aid the Japanese enemy.

Although his leftist philosophies were often curbed by his domineering producer brother Alexander, Zoltan Korda did provide something of a corrective to the racism inherent in some of the British imperial films by producing and directing the sensitive anti-apartheid drama Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), featuring a young Sidney Poitier.

Vincent Korda's distinguished career as art director-production designer included a diverse variety of films beyond those he did with his brothers: Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), produced by Alexander Korda and David O. Selznik, David Lean's Summertime (1955), and the war film The Longest Day (1962). He won an Academy Award for The Thief of Bagdad (1940), the first of four art direction nominations.

Vincent Korda is the father of author Michael Korda, whose many books and articles include Queenie, a fictionalized bio of his aunt Merle Oberon. It was made into a TV movie in 1987, with Kirk Douglas as a character based in part on Alexander Korda. Michael Korda also wrote Charmed Lives, a nonfiction history of his illustrious family.

Georges Perinal won an Academy Award for his color cinematography on Korda's The Thief of Bagdad. In addition to his many films for Korda, he is also known for his cinematography on Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), Rene Clair's A nous la liberte (1931), and Charles Chaplin's A King in New York (1957).

One of the second-unit camera operators on the film was Jack Cardiff, who later achieved renown for his stunning cinematography on Black Narcissus (1947, an Oscar® winner), The Red Shoes (1948), and The African Queen (1951) and as director of Sons and Lovers (1960) and Death on the Nile (1978).

Miklos Rozsa had his first international successes working on the films of fellow-Hungarian Korda. He went on to become one of the top composers in Hollywood, receiving 17 Academy Award nominations for scoring and songwriting (often multiple times in the same year) and winning three times: Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947), and Ben-Hur (1959).

Although never a major screen presence despite his performance in The Four Feathers, John Clements was one of the most distinguished and prolific actor-managers of the British stage. He was knighted in 1968.

Ralph Richardson's acting career spanned more than 50 years, encompassing acclaimed stage performances in everything from Shakespeare to Pinter, a number of TV appearances, and nearly 80 films. In addition to his highly acclaimed work in Great Britain (for which he was knighted in 1947), he made a mark in such American films as The Heiress (1949, earning a Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1962). He also played God in Time Bandits (1981). A collector of motorcycles and three-time Tony Award nominee, Richardson once said that the art of acting lay in keeping people from coughing.

C. Aubrey Smith was one of Hollywood's most enduring character actors and supporting players, the very essence of the long-faced, distinguished stereotypical Englishman. Already over 50 when he began his film career in 1915, his amazing longevity and ability to convey his specific type of stock character in a wide range of stories carried him through more than 100 pictures up to his last, at the age of 85, Little Women (1949). When he wasn't busy standing up for the Empire in such films as Clive of India (1935) and The Four Feathers, he could be seen supporting the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory, 1933), Jean Harlow (Bombshell, 1933, and China Seas, 1935) and Irene Dunne (The White Cliffs of Dover, 1944).

June Duprez, as the lovely Ethne, later starred as the Princess in Korda's The Thief of Bagdad.

Future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was present as a reporter at the battle of Omdurman, the climactic battle in this movie.

Famous Quotes from THE FOUR FEATHERS

GENERAL FAVERSHAM (Allan Jeayes): I don't mind telling you, Doctor, I'm worried about him. I can't understand the boy. I send him to the best Army school in England, spend half me time telling him about his famous ancestors, and what do you think? I found him this morning reading a poetry book. Shelley of all people! So I want you to help me lick this boy into shape, make him hard.

GENERAL BURROUGHS (C. Aubrey Smith): Immediately, one of my [men] came to me shaking. Absolutely shaking! I said, what's wrong? "I'm afraid to face those guns, sir." I said, would you rather face me? Hmm! He took one look at my face and off he went. Ten minutes later he was shot to pieces at the head of his men. As a soldier should be, eh?

FAVERSHAM: There's no place in England for a coward.

HARRY (John Clements): We've discussed it so often. The futility of this idiotic Egyptian adventure. The madness of it all. The ghastly waste of time that we can never have again.

HARRY: I believe in our happiness. I believe in the work to be done here to save an estate that's near to ruin. To save all those people who've been neglected by my family because they preferred glory in India. Glory in China. Glory in Africa.

ETHNE (June Duprez): You were not born free, Harry, nor was I. We were born into a tradition, a code which we must obey, even if we do not believe. And we must obey, Harry, because the pride and happiness of everyone surrounding us depends on our obedience.

HARRY: The man who tries to cheat his fate is more than a coward, he's a fool as well.

DR. HARRAZ (Henry Oscar): Why worry? Be a coward and be happy.

DR. HARRAZ: A mad race, the English.

DURRANCE (Ralph Richardson): You've always got some confoundedly cold-blooded reason for doing nothing.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Four Feathers (1939)

The genesis of The Four Feathers goes back before the history of film to the ill-fated 19th century exploits of the British in the Sudan. After a long career in the military, Gen. Charles Gordon was made governor of the Sudan by the government of Egypt, and he worked to suppress a rebellion there. Although the British eventually decided the defense of the Sudan was not in the best national interest and urged the Egyptian government to abandon the region, Gordon remained and did his best to quell the disturbance. In 1885, the city of Khartoum fell to Arab forces and Gordon was killed. This is the historical prologue that begins the film.

Three years after the defeat at Khartoum, Anglo-Egyptian forces made a push to take the Sudan back from the successors of the Mahdi, the Arab leader who had captured it. British forces under Lord Kitchener were sent to the Sudan and at the Battle of Omdurman (the Arab command center) were successful in routing the rebel forces. This second campaign in Africa is the setting for the major events of The Four Feathers and the exploits of Harry Faversham.

British author A.E.W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) Mason was born in London in 1865 and published his first of more than 20 books, the novel A Romance of Wastdale, in 1895. In 1902, he published a highly successful novel set during the British military exploits in North Africa several years earlier. Taking as its central plot point the traditional symbol of cowardice, the white feather, Mason spun the tale of a man who must prove himself to four people, each of whom has given him a feather. This novel, The Four Feathers, was first filmed in 1915. Two more versions followed; a 1921 production directed by Rene Plaissetty and starring Harry Ham and Cyril Percival and the highly successful 1929 remake with Richard Arlen, William Powell, and Fay Wray. Since the story was a tried-and-true property, it was picked up by producer Alexander Korda for its first sound version.

Hungarian-born Alexander Korda began in motion pictures in 1916, working first in his homeland, then Austria and Germany, and then in Hollywood, where he remained until 1930. After a brief sojourn in France, he settled in England, a country he came to love. In a short time, he became to the British film industry what such men as Sam Goldwyn and David O. Selznik were to America - a highly successful independent producer who turned out prestige productions. Korda founded his own company, London Films, and although he continued to direct pictures throughout his career (including the internationally successful The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933, an Oscar®-winner for star Charles Laughton), he made his greatest mark as producer, sometimes employing his brothers Zoltan and Vincent as, respectively, director and production designer/art director.

Korda initially met with legal difficulties in acquiring the rights to the novel. In 1937, he announced that Robert Donat would play the lead. Shortly after, Paramount Pictures, producer of the 1929 version, announced they would not sell their rights to the property. It has not been documented how this dispute was settled.

To adapt the story to screen, Korda brought in R.C. Sherriff, best known up to that time for the screenplay for The Invisible Man (1933). Additional dialogue was provided by Lajos Biro, chief writer and story developer for Korda's London Films, and Arthur Wimperis, who had done much dialogue and scenario work on several previous Korda productions.

According to a news item in Variety in June 1938, writer Alec Waugh, who worked as assistant art director and set dresser on two previous Korda productions, went to the Sudan to do research prior to the production's location work there, but he is not credited with working on this film.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Four Feathers (1939)

Alexander Korda spared no expense in this production, shooting in Technicolor and doing most of the exteriors on location in the Sudan.

Brother Vincent Korda was again assigned art direction/production design duties. The direction was again entrusted to brother Zoltan, fresh off the success of the earlier picture The Drum (1938) and another, Elephant Boy (1937), that had also starred Sabu (both films made the Indian actor an international star).

Alexander Korda decided not to direct The Four Feathers because his last two directorial efforts, The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), Douglas Fairbanks's last movie, and the critically acclaimed Rembrandt (1936), had not been commercial successes. He had also lost considerable money on the aborted I, Claudius, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton, a film that was well into production when it was abandoned. On top of that, the pressure of running the large, recently purchased Denham Studios made it all the more appealing to turn to a proven success like Mason's story and to concentrate on producing while brother Zoltan directed.

Korda was wise to stick with a team that had proven very effective at high-quality collaboration on previous projects. Georges Perinal, a master of color who had lensed Rembrandt, The Drum, and other films for Korda, was assigned the cinematography, with exterior location work again going to Osmond Borradaile. Film editor Henry Cornelius was also a London Films regular, and fellow Hungarian Miklos Rozsa, who had composed music for five previous Korda productions, was set to do the score. Writers Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis were part of the team responsible for Korda's last big hit, The Drum, which was also based on an A.E.W. Mason book (it was released in the U.S. as Drums).

Korda also tapped actors with whom he had previously worked, including John Clements (roles in four earlier films) and Ralph Richardson (an alum of five pictures). New to the team was C. Aubrey Smith, who had already established himself in Hollywood and England as the epitome of the old-guard British upper crust, therefore perfect for the overblown Gen. Burroughs. .

The action scenes, photographed by Osmond Borradaile, were not only filmed where the historical battles had actually taken place but also included among the many extras people who had witnessed or participated in the fighting more than 40 years earlier. These battle scenes further benefited from Zoltan Korda's expertise at large-scale action and his early experience as a cavalry officer.

The sailing ships pulled by hordes of Sudanese along the Nile were constructed specially for the production in exact period detail at great cost.

For historical accuracy, Korda hired a military technical adviser, Brigadier Hector Campbell, and had him drill the actors and extras exactly the same as soldiers would have been in the period of the film's setting.

Although he was a stickler for historical fidelity, Korda was not above stretching the truth for the sake of spectacle. As shooting was about to begin on the lavish ballroom scene, he went into a fit over the fact that the officers were all clad in blue uniforms. The picture's military adviser, Brigadier Hector Campbell, informed him that this was the proper dress for a private party in the late 1800s. "But this is Technicolor!" Korda roared, and the uniforms were changed to bright red.

The Korda brothers had a working relationship and method that sometimes agitated their English cast and crew, who were not used to sudden, loud arguments conducted in Hungarian and halting English peppered with expletives. John Clements recalled sitting in Alexander's office discussing a point of production when suddenly the three brothers broke into a violent screaming match. "Zolly [Zoltan] started picking things up off the table and throwing them on the floor, and I really thought they were going to kill each other," Clements said. Just as suddenly as it began, however, the fight stopped "and everybody embraced, including me, and we all had a nice cup of tea, and that was that."

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Four Feathers (1939)

In spite of the heavy expense of making The Four Feathers, box office returns were enormous. But the windfall came too late for Alexander Korda to save his financially strapped Denham Studios from being taken over by rival interests.

Georges Perinal and Osmond Borradaile's color cinematography received an Academy Award nomination.

The film was nominated for both the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival. Because of the war, however, the Cannes festival was cancelled. As a result, The Four Feathers was one of seven films made in 1939 chosen to be shown in a special retrospective honor at the 55th Cannes International Film Festival in 2002.

"It cannot fail to be one of the best films of the year....even the richest of the ham goes smoothly down, savoured with humor and satire." - Graham Greene

"Perfectly cast and presented...a triumph of early colour." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide (HarperPerennial).

"Grand adventure....[C. Aubrey] Smith is just wonderful as the tale-spinning Army veteran." - Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide (Plume).

"A typically polished vehicle for saluting a certain British mythology, with a rousing score...superb Technicolor camerawork...and solid performances all around. The fourth (and best) version of A.E.W. Mason's ripping yarn." - Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide 2002 (Penguin Books, 2002).

"A.E.W. Mason's novel has been adapted to the screen several times, but this lavish production is by far the best...Compared to other "exotic" adventure films of the late 1930s, The Four Feathers is more polished and serious, and it was certainly one of the most expensive. Its combination of exotic locales with troubled British military men is an obvious influence on the films of David Lean that would follow. Its mad plotting, though, still stands on its own." - Mike Mayo, War Movies (Visible Ink).

"The film is imperial melodrama with a vengeance...It still looks good half a century later, with Clements sternly determined, Richardson cool, June Duprez exotic, Aubrey Smith's eyebrows at their crustiest, and John Laurie raving marvellously as the Khalifa. There is a proper fin de siecle appearance to the costumes and settings in England, a rousing troop embarkation, huge shots of Kitchener's river fleet being dragged up the Nile (by Clements among others), the famous sequence in which Richardson loses his topi, an eerily filmed night attack by fuzzy-wuzzies, and a spectacular charge by the Khalifa's mounted hordes as the action finale. The cavalry skirmish in which Winston Churchill took part is not seen, but the historical element is sound, and the picture is really what the cinema of Empire was all about - duty, derring-do, and the Pax Britannica. It is a long way from Band Aid." - George MacDonald Fraser, The Hollywood History of the World (Fawcett).

"June Duprez, the fiance, is the only woman in the cast. She postulates prettily and attractively, with little else to do. Rest of the cast is excellent, with C. Aubrey Smith, enacting a lovable, elderly bore. John Clements, the hero, is excellent. Photography is excellent along with the direction by Zoltan Korda." - Variety Movie Guide (Prentice Hall).

"Britain had tried before to match Hollywood in its specialty fields, such as musicals and action films. British critics were very kind when the efforts came close, but in truth the flow, the rhythm and the spark of inspiration were never quite there, however careful the copy. The Four Feathers nails all this to the wall. Its action scenes, pulsatingly thrilling, totally real, match anything from a similar Hollywood epic, while its colour photography...was the best the world had seen....But the abiding memory of the film remains in its panoramas: dozens of Arabs heaving small sailing vessels along the Nile, thousands of natives charging at their enemy, the tense prison rescue, and the battle scenes themselves, full of the sweat, dust, heat, guts and desperation of desert combat. The emotive tug of such scenes is irresistible." - BritMovie (www.britmovie.co.uk).

"The Four Feathers is satisfying as a war film, with stirring battle scenes - the jailbreak sequence is spectacular - and a spirit of breathless boy's own adventure throughout...But the whiff of racism is unmistakable, and its celebration of empire is hard to stomach today." - Mark Duguid, ScreenOnline (www.screenonline.org.uk/).

"Some critics on the Epinions site attack the film for its old hat imperialist symbolism and discredited Orientalism: a combination of the jingoist past and the spuriously continuing exotic. No doubt, the critics have a point, but the film did present a noble view to the British of their duty and history. That view had sustained Britain down to 1939, the year THE FOUR FEATHERS was made, when She [England] prepared to stand alone against Adolph Hitler, while we, a nation of Harry Favershams twiddled until Japan forced us to meet our own duties and traditions. Most of all, THE FOUR FEATHERS is a universally applicable story of how conscience forces some individuals to help their brothers and sisters." - Macresarf1, Epinions (www.epinions.com).

by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

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teaser The Four Feathers (1939)

Easily the best of several film versions of A. E. W. Mason's rousing novel of redemption set during the height of British Imperialism, The Four Feathers (1939) is also considered one of the great triumphs of Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, and consequently, of all British cinema. Aside from the widely hailed color cinematography, location filming, and thrilling action scenes, this version of The Four Feathers is also remembered for career-defining performances by several important British actors, including Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith.

We meet our protagonist, Harry Faversham, as a boy of 15. In 1885, he is at the table while his father, a retired General (Allan Jeayes) entertains a group of war comrades. The news has reached England that the British Army in Khartoum has been defeated and General Gordon is dead. The boy is clearly horrified by the grisly war stories. Ten years later, the adult Harry Faversham (John Clements) is trying to live up to his family's long military tradition, and has become an officer of the British army. He is part of a regiment that is due to depart for Egypt to combat the Sudanese rebellion. Harry is engaged to Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), daughter of the distinguished General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith), a great friend of Harry's father. On the eve of the company's departure, Harry suddenly resigns his commission. He is explaining his position to his fiancee when he is delivered a package containing three white feathers, one each from his three friends and fellow officers: Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Willoughby (Jack Allan), and Burroughs (Donald Gray). Seeing the disappointment on Ethne's face, he adds a fourth feather. Faversham determines to redeem himself by traveling to Egypt, disguising himself as an Arab, and infiltrating the Dervishes and secretly aiding his comrades. This he does in spectacular fashion, saving the life of Durrance and mounting a daring prison escape for many others.

The Four Feathers is unabashed in its glorification of The Empire, and like their previous films Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938), it was a family affair for the Korda brothers. Zoltan Korda directed the picture and Vincent Korda provided Art Direction, while Alexander oversaw the entire endeavor for London Film Productions. The Technicolor cinematography, hailed as the most naturalistic to that point, was credited to Georges Perinal, though additional photography was by Osmond Borradaile and Robert Krasker. Borradaile and Zoltan Korda shot most of the exterior scenes for The Four Feathers on location in the Sudan, resulting in stunning images. The footage was striking enough that it was often reused as stock footage, appearing in such later films as Zarak (1956), Master of the World (1961), and East of Sudan (1964), a film about the original Khartoum uprising.

In the biography Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles, Karol Kulik explains that the Korda brothers turned to Empire-themed films due to "Zoltan's love of exotic adventure stories and of native populations" and because Alex, as an ex-colonial official, "...never really gave up the British Empire nor his romantic and patriotic notion of the 'British' way of handling a situation." All three brothers working on the same film could prove to be a touchy situation, however. "When things went wrong," Kulik explains, "when the inevitable disagreements appeared, volatile outbursts and enthusiastic reconciliations were sure to result. All three spoke English idiosyncratically, and their language was well peppered with appropriate or inappropriate expletives."

The performances in The Four Feathers were highly praised; while stage actor and director John Clements proves sympathetic in a difficult role, the greatest kudos were reserved for Ralph Richardson as Durrance; the scenes in which Durrance overcomes the blindness caused by exposure to the desert sun are unforgettable. Also standing out is C. Aubrey Smith, whose General Burroughs defined a classic stock character: the blustery retired British military man.

Alexander Korda employed several military advisors on The Four Feathers to ensure historical accuracy of the period. He did not, however, allow such accuracy to interfere with showmanship. Lead actor John Clements, interviewed by Kulik, recalled shooting a scene where he and Ralph Richardson were costumed as officers attending a ball in a private residence. Uniformed by the best Savile Row tailors, the advisors correctly instructed that the uniforms be blue. Korda reached the set and said, "...'what is this blue uniform?' And the military colonel, or whatever he was, said, 'But that's correct. This is a private house, not in the mess.' 'But this is Technicolor!!' [Korda] said, and the whole thing was changed and we were all dressed in red uniforms.'"

A. E. W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers has proven to be an ever-popular movie property, oft-filmed on both sides of the Atlantic. There were three versions in the silent era, beginning with an American version in 1915, followed by a British film in 1921. The third was also one of the last major studio silent productions, a lavish Merian C. Cooper film for Paramount Pictures in 1929. Co-directed by Lothar Mendes and Ernest B. Schoedsack, this version featured Richard Arlen as Harry Faversham, Fay Wray as Ethne, and Clive Brook as Lt. Durrance. The directing credit for the 1955 version of the story, Storm Over the Nile, was split between Terence Young and Zoltan Korda. The London Films production was a near shot-for-shot remake utilizing the R. C. Sherriff screenplay as well and large chucks of the 1939 film, including most of the final battle sequence. The film starred Anthony Steel as Faversham and Laurence Harvey as Durrance. A television adaptation followed in 1977. The latest theatrical version, directed by Shekhar Kapur in 2002, gives more of a voice to Faversham's Sudanese guide, but is otherwise not the revisionist take on the story that many expected.

Producer: Alexander Korda
Associate Producer: Irving Asher
Director: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay: R. C. Sherriff, based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: Henry Cornelius
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Costume Design: Godfrey Brennan, Rene Hubert
Musical Director: Muir Mathieson
Cast: John Clements (Harry Faversham), Ralph Richardson (Captain John Durrance), C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs), Jane Duprez (Ethne Burroughs), Allan Jeayes (General Faversham), Jack Allen (Lieutenant Willoughby), Donald Gray (Peter Burroughs), Frederick Culley (Dr. Sutton), Clive Baxter (Young Harry Faversham).
C-130m.

by John M. Miller

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