The A.E.W. Mason classic adventure book The Four Feathers (1902) has been adapted into at least seven films directly. The latest was a semi-well received version in 2002 with Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson. When the 1939 version was released, there had already been three previous version, including a version with King Kong star Fay Wray. Now out on beautiful Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection is the Zoltan Korda 1939 version of The Four Feathers. For a story adapted so many times, I knew this film is considered the definitive version and I was anxious to see what Criterion had in store for me.
The majority of the film takes place in 1895 during the Sudanese war with the Egyptians and eventually British. Our hero is Harry Faversham. After an initial scene where we see Harry’s upbringing in a military family and his aversion to the stories of war, we fast-forward to Lt. Harry with his three friends, Capt. Durrance, Lt. Willoughby and Lt. Burroughs. Harry is having his engagement to Ethne Burroughs just as the friends are to be deployed to Egypt. On the eve of their departure, Faversham resigns his commission. The shock of this leads his friends to believe him to be a coward and they send him three feathers (symbolic of cowardice in Britain stemming from cockfighting). The fourth feather he picks himself when his beloved Ethne does not support his action.
From this point on, the movie goes into full action mode. The first third of the movie feels like you’re skimming through chapters of a much larger book. There is quite a bit of characterization that is lost in this transition. We have lost years of Harry’s upbringing to see how he ended up in the Army anyway. The role of his friends is going to be extremely important over the next two thirds of the film and yet we haven’t seen enough of them to know their names or much about their characters. We know Capt. Durrance the best because he also wanted the hand of Ethne Burroughs in marriage. But he accepts the loss to Faversham very politely. There’s a real challenge for any director at this point to build a story upon the importance of friendships that we are told are important but not shown.
To redeem himself to his wife-to-be and his friends, Harry leaves on what seems like an ill conceived and dangerous road to redemption. He arrives in Egypt, alone, and goes through a painful process to appear to be a mute Sangali so he won’t be questioned about not knowing the language. As the defiant Khalifa’s army chases the British into the desert, we meet our Captain Durrance again. In what I found to be the most intriguing portion of the film, the Captain is blinded by sunstroke. He does not admit his affliction to the troops and leads them into battle.
The most powerful scene of the film takes place as a blind Durrance is left for dead on the battlefield. His troops have all fallen around him (our other two heroes are taken prisoner) but Durrance is still trying to give orders. Unaware that the buzzards are circling and feeding on the carcasses of the battlefield, Durrance tries maintain his bravery. Durrance is a perfect symbol for the cracks starting to appear in the British Empire of the day. The “blind’ Empire giving orders to no one as the buzzards circle waiting for it to die. And it’s here that Faversham shines. He’s not the thin, weak-looking man we saw in the first scenes – he’s tanned and strong, despite being dressed in rags. Even as Capt. Durrance shouts for Ethne, Harry does not break character. The rescue of Capt. Durrance is the centerpiece of the film and the most evocative.
The film squanders an important opportunity to fill in important gaps in the story after Durrance’s rescue. Harry has hidden the feather he was given back on Captain Durrance’s person. But in that moment, he’s mistaken as a thief and hauled away to prison. We are left with a simple title card to tell the viewer that over a year has passed. We have missed a chance to see the rekindling of the romance between Durrance and Ethne and how they deal with the assumed death of Harry. This transition is important to the conclusion of the film. It’s just as we rejoin the story that Ethne and her family discover the feather but don’t have the heart to tell Durrance.
Back to our hero for the second big action sequence of the film. This time it’s a prison break for the other two captured friends. Faversham arrouses suspicion while planning their escape. He is tortured by the Khalifa as the British led by Kitchener are approaching. As the battle erupts a distance from the prison, Faversham helps lead the prisoners in a revolt. His bravery contributes to the British retaking the prison before the army has even arrived.
Back in England, just as Durrance has learned that his blindness is permanent, he is read an account of the battle at the prison and discovers that Faversham was the one who rescued him also. In a tender act of friendship and loyalty, Durrance leaves for Germany “to restore his sight” leaving Ethne free to take back Faversham. The film ends, like all great stories, with a recall to the beginning. General Burroughs is telling the same story of the Battle of Balaclava that he told multiple times during the beginning of the film. But this time, Harry interrupts and corrects him that the General was not brave as he embellishes the story but that his glory was completely an accident.
There’s quite a bit to be excited for in this film. Zoltan Korda’s direction and the cinematography by Georges Perinal are exemplary. Korda balances the action scenes with plot development well. There’s also some great shots of Africa without becoming too much of a travelogue. The scene where Durrance loses his sight because of the sunstroke starts innocently with him dropping his hat. There’s the tick, tick, tick as the hat bounces down the rocky slope. It seems harmless until the heat and music start to blur even the camera. The actor, John Clements, who plays Harry has a very “Jimmy Stewart” air to his performance. Some of the rest of the cast seems Shakespearean trained but Clements carries off the transition from “coward’ to “hero” very well.
Thematically the film might require multiple viewings. The title suggests a film about cowardice in the face of battle. But Harry is not a coward in the traditional sense of the word. He is afraid that he might be thought of as a coward, not that he is a coward. He wants to quit the army and run away with his wife. But he is able to transform himself – literally and figuratively. By becoming the character of the Sangali, he conquers his fears. The other themes about the breaking of the British Empire are ones that I would need a greater understanding of the historical background of these battles to understand.
The film is part of a small sub-genre of films that all seem to be grand epic tales. The Northern Africa battle stories lend themselves to men testing themselves against the extreme powers of Nature. This film is evocative of the Kipling stories of Africa and the adventures of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). The David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia would explore many of the same elements of battle – including the personal struggles with someone opposed to war and the failings of a dying British Empire trying to maintain power many miles from home.
The sweeping shots of the desert and the powerful draw of the Nile and its life giving water are a great backdrop for a story about a lost soul. The action scenes perfectly illustrate a man overcoming his fears of cowardice. This film is a great addition to the Criterion Collection library.
The Blu-ray is a brilliant restoration and the colors don’t make it look like a film from 1939. There’s an Audio Commentary from Charles Drazin (film historian). Also included on the disc is an interview with the director’s son and “A Day at Denham” that shows Zoltan Korda on the set of this film. None of the extras make much of a difference in the enjoyment of the film but when the film is this strong it speaks for itself.