The Four Feathers is one of the most enduring and entertaining tales of war and empire, as well as one of the greatest cinematic studies on the nature and value of heroism and duty. This is the 1939 version, which was the best of seven film adaptations of the 1902 novel. If you’ve seen the watered down, politically corrected and disappointing Heath Ledger 2002 remake, you’re familiar with the story but not with its full potential. A British soldier (John Clements) who was raised on intimidating tales of his ancestors’ battlefield glories, horrors and hard fought victories, and faced with the choice between fighting in North Africa and staying home with his beautiful fiancé, is less than thrilled when war breaks out in the Sudan and his regiment is ordered to go there. He rebels against family military tradition, gives in to his yips and resigns from the Army. As a result he’s branded a yellow deserter, and disgraced by his buddies’ “gift” of the dreaded white feathers symbolizing cowardice. The last straw is the realization that his fiancé no longer respects him. Motivated now by shame and guilt, Clements resolves to prove to himself and to those he loves, that he can rise to and meet his duty and obligation. He manages to exceed those goals as he re-enters the battle in disguise (with a startling commitment to authenticity) and redeems himself through a series of selfless and daring acts, rescuing those who doubted him and returning the feathers one by one.
The moral put forward here is of having a duty to something greater than yourself, sacrificing something –if not all–to serve that greater thing, and in the end being made greater by serving out that duty. Ralph Richardson as Captain Durrance gives the viewer a memorable example of this (see also: “stiff upper lip”) when he conceals his sun blindness to avoid shaking troops’ morale and risk dashing a mission. In a movie that’s a product of both the Victorian era and the golden age of cinema, and has such a clear and unapologetically Anglo-centric viewpoint, those in search of offense are certain to find it, especially if they hold quaint or in contempt such values as patriotism, traditionalism, obligation and self-sacrifice. The colonial soldiers call the Africans “fuzzy-wuzzies” on account of their frizzy hair, a term of begrudging respect (courtesy of the Rudyard Kipling poem) for the tribe’s fighting ability. However modern sensibilities react to period racial portrayals, it can’t detract from the story’s lessons: that there is a reward to personal honor beyond even what a medal can bestow or signify, and that the concept of empire has its advantages and benefits, and is worth defending and fighting for, which was an especially meaningful and relevant theme for the British in 1939 as they were on the decline while also facing the Nazi onslaught. The Korda brothers who made the film—producer Alexander, director Zoltan and production designer Vincent–were twice subjects of empire (first Austro-Hungarian and then British), were enthusiastically patriotic about their adopted land in a way that seems unique to immigrants, and in this movie glorified flag-waving imperialism, the necessity of battle and the promise of victory, in no small part to show their new home country the shame, danger and disaster that could come from betting so heavily on appeasement, inaction and moral disarmament.
On this side of the Atlantic 1939 had another, happier significance, as it’s now almost unanimously called Hollywood’s greatest year in film, and The Four Feathers deserves to be regarded as equal to any movie in that year’s top tier. Despite having a rock solid story to rely on, and excellent acting to convey it, the movie also boasts gorgeous scenes and great action: massive and decorous military ceremonies and marches, a climactic jailbreak, a formal ball (where Korda went with red uniforms instead of the real blue ones, simply because red looked more impressive in Technicolor), sprawling battles in the Egyptian desert and steamships on the Nile, all captured with lavish color cinematography that deservedly earned an Oscar nomination. This one’s an essential when all spiffed up for Blu-ray and a must if you love epic classic adventure yarns like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, GUNGA DIN, KHARTOUM or BEAU GESTE. Criterion offers up The Four Feathers fully restored with commentary by one of the director’s sons David Korda, and a bonus on-set short film.
THE FOUR FEATHERS is available OCT 11