The Four Feathers (1939)
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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).
by John M. Miller