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The legendary Sir Alexander Korda reached the end of a distinguished filmmaking career with the 1955 epic, Storm Over the Nile, based on his 1939 adventure classic The Four Feathers. Like his earlier adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's novel, the film glorified queen and country by depicting a British military man's attempts to prove his courage after being branded a coward by his friends. In fact, the remake bore some startling resemblances to Korda's earlier version, as it used the earlier screenplay word-for-word and included most of the original's location footage.
For all the borrowings, however, Storm Over the Nile was a result of Korda's thinking ahead, at least in business terms. Faced with declining audiences because of competition from the infant medium of television, Korda, like many in Hollywood, realized the need for a change in the way movies were made. Instead of producing several small films a year, he was moving his London Films into producing a smaller number of larger films. As he told his nephew (and biographer) Michael Korda, "You can only beat the little screen of television by giving people a much larger screen, by making the film a special occasion. Quantity film production is finished, except to provide material for television. The future is in big expensive films that people will leave their television sets to see because they're special. We shouldn't make movies that are like what they see on television. We should make movies that are so much bigger, more exciting and special that television can't compete."
To do that, in the mid-'50s, he was involved in a variety of projects, including Laurence Olivier's epic production of William Shakespeare's Richard III (1955) and David Lean's Venice-set romance Summertime (1955), starring Katharine Hepburn. He also turned to one of his greatest hits from the past, The Four Feathers.
Mason's novel had already been filmed three times before Korda did his first production. The first was a 1915 U.S. silent film with a running time of under an hour. The British did their own silent version in 1921, with Roger Livesey in a small role playing the leading man as a child. Documentarians Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack turned it into an early semi-sound version in 1929 under the guidance of David O. Selznick. Their popular version starred Richard Arlen as the accused traitor, Fay Wray as his fiance and Clive Brook, William Powell and Theodore von Eltz as the friends he journeys to the Sudan to save. Korda topped that version in 1939, with his brother Zoltan Korda directing John Clements, June Duprez, Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith and shooting some lavish location footage in Africa. The Kordas shot so much footage for the film that they sold what they hadn't used to other studios as background for their own African-set films. As popular as the films were in their time, however, more recent audiences have balked at the jingoistic glorification of British colonialism, partnered with a less than tolerant view of the Arab world.
For the remake Storm Over the Nile, the Kordas decided to take advantage of the new Cinemascope process, which meant changing the aspect ratio of their earlier footage. Zoltan would later complain that stretching out the image for the wider screen made the camels look more like greyhounds, but with careful handling the sequences looked as if they had just been shot, the one element of the film that won it consistent praise from the critics. The studio scenes matching all this were shot in Shepperton Studios in London, with Terence Young. He was still a fledgling director a few years away from his success with the early James Bond films; he supervised most of the shooting.
For the heroic lead, the Kordas cast one of England's most popular matinee idols of the day, Anthony Steel, who is probably best-known in the U.S. as Errol Flynn's dueling partner in The Master of Ballantrae (1953) and Anita Ekberg's husband in real life. Matching him in looks (and in the opinion of many, far surpassing him in talent) was Laurence Harvey, cast as the friend who tries to lead his men into battle without revealing that he's gone blind from the relentlessly blazing sun. Harvey was fresh off his international success in Alberto Cavalcanti's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1954) and international embarrassment in the notoriously bad King Richard and the Crusaders (1954). He would achieve his greatest fame as star of the gritty working-class drama Room at the Top (1959) and the political thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). For leading lady, they cast the luminously beautiful Mary Ure, making her screen debut. She, too, would excel in British working class drama, as Richard Burton's wife in Look Back in Anger (1958) and Dean Stockwell's lover in Sons and Lovers (1960). Also notable was the casting of one of the screen's greatest villains, Christopher Lee, as the evil Pasha.
Alexander Korda had been in ill health for some time in the '50s, and would die a few months after the release of Storm Over the Nile. That was hardly the end of the line for Mason's story -- or the Kordas' footage. Their location material would be reused for a 1977 television re-make starring Beau Bridges and Jane Seymour. The story would also return to the screen in 2002 in a revisionist version starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson. In place of the Kordas' glorification of the empire, that film took a decidedly post-colonial view of the Sudan campaign, questioning the racism underlying Great Britain's colonial politics and even having the British lose a battle they had actually won.
Producer: Zoltan Korda, Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Director: Zoltan Korda, Terence Young
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff
Based on the novel The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason
Cinematography: Osmond Borradaile, Edward Scaife
Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Benjamin Frankel
Principal Cast: Anthony Steel (Harry Faversham), Laurence Harvey (John Durance), James Robertson Justice (General Burroughs), Mary Ure (Mary Burroughs), Geoffrey Keen (Dr. Sutton), Ronald Lewis (Peter Burroughs), Ian Carmichael (Willoughby), Michael Hordern (General Faversham), Christopher Lee (Karaga Pasha), Ferdy Mayne (Dr. Harraz), Roger Delgado (Native Spy).
by Frank Miller