Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Four Feathers is the classic British military adventure story about bravery,
cowardice and honor. It's been remade at least seven times but this Technicolor epic filmed at
the outset of WW2 is the favored version. It's one of the most successful superproductions from
the Korda brothers, a trio of Hungarians who prospered in the British film industry.
2002 remake is a thudding
bore that buries everything good about the original story under P.C. niceties - this 1939 version
is the one to see.
Respected Lt. Harry Faversham (John Clements) has begun a fine military career, and
is the envy of his three friends Arthur Willoughby, Peter Burroughs and John Durrance (Ralph
Richardson) when he becomes engaged to Ethne Burroughs, the most desirable young woman in London
(June Duprez). But Harry never thought he'd actually have to see action, and when his regiment is
assigned to the Sudan, he suddenly resigns his commission. The act outrages all who know Harry,
and his engagement is spoiled. His former comrades send him four white feathers, a formal gesture
that symbolizes cowardice and severs all ties. Harry decides to go secretly to Africa, with a wild
plan to win back his reputation.
National epics based on colonial greatness have waned in popularity in the last few decades, and
the days when England could consider itself the center of a vast empire are now at least 50
years in the past. The Four Feathers is a great adventure story based on several set
assumptions - that British rule represented order over chaos in foreign lands; that the
darker heathen populations of the Earth were meant to be ruled by Europeans; and that there was
no greater honor for an Englishman than to serve in the Armies of conquest and pacification.
Harry Faversham would almost seem to be an object lesson for little boys disinclined to see the army
as a career and the nation's unending wars as a good thing. In a flashback we see Harry traumatized
by General Burroughs' stories of Crimea and what sounds like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Harry
joins up and learns to be a solider, but never comes to grips with the idea of going to war. He
doesn't realize that his resignation will cause him to be ostracized by both his peers and his
fiancée. His reaction is to launch himself as a one-man deep-cover spy. Sneaking away to Egypt,
he has his skin dyed and his forehead branded in order to pass himself off as a mute native. He slips
quietly in among the laborers in his regiment's unit. His plan is to win back his honor and return those
damning white feathers.
What follows is a fine desert adventure. Harry's disguise puts him in a position to help after a
devastating attack by the fuzzy-wuzzies (sic). In a prison hell-hole with two of his former friends,
he's able to foment a break-out just when one is needed to aide a British attack. It's all very
exciting and well-done, even now.
The film is especially notable for being shot on location in the Sudan in Technicolor, which in 1939 was
no small technical feat. The large-scale battle scenes still impress audiences; when the film was remade in
'scope in 1955 as Storm Over the Nile, Korda just took the same footage and reframed it for the
John Clements was mostly a stage actor and this might be his most famous film role; he was in Korda's
Things to Come and
much later played an intelligence officer in
The Mind Benders. The real standout
in the cast is Ralph Richardson. He turns in a memorable performance as the Captain who loses his helmet
in the desert heat and goes blind. June Duprez's Ethne is lovely, but the actress is far more desirable
in Korda's next film
The Thief of Bagdad.
it's just that we don't respect her as highly as we might. All the characters place social and military
duty above personal relationships, and it would be a fitting ending if Harry
offered Ethne his dress uniform to sleep with on their honeymoon night. It's interesting that western audiences
find the honor system in the Japanese story
like Chushingura so strange and perverse,
when the inflexible social cruelty of The Four Feathers has such similar punishments for dishonored
pariahs. Harry Faversham isn't expected to commit ritual suicide, but many of his peers are probably thinking
that's what he should do.
MGM's DVD of The Four Feathers has been awaited for some time, with fans hoping for a major
picture restoration. It looks good, but not great. There seems to be a red halo to the right of
many lines of high-contrast, where bright white shirts meet black evening jackets, etc. This
isn't exactly misregistration, as the rest of the picture looks better than I've ever seen it. It's
just that things like candle flames have little secondary ghost flames a little bit to the right of
the real ones. I honestly don't know what the problem is is. After all this explanation, it's
important to stress that the image overall looks great, and the flaw (I think it's a flaw)
is not all that distracting.
The mono audio with the marvelous Mikos Rozsa score is fine, free of the distortion that plagued
MGM's disc of The Thief of Bagdad. There are no extras. The package has an excellent cover
design but the plot synopsis on the back gives some wrong impressions. Harry Favisham doesn't resign
from his post in the midst of battle, and the film is not primarily a battle epic.
The IMDB lists a much longer running time, but this 115-minute version is the one I remember
seeing many times over.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Four Feathers rates:
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 2, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson