Monday, July 15, 2013

The Four Feathers: The Novel and the Films

Shekhar Kapur's The Four Feathers (2002)

The British Empire was not only the playground for boys’ adventure stories; it provided the backdrop for the A.E.W. Mason novel The Four Feathers, a nuanced exploration of male redemption, one that remained immensely popular from its 1902 publication through to the Second World War. Set during a three-year period, 1882-85, Four Feathers charts the risks and the dangers to which a young man exposes himself in order to atone for his loss of honour. Unlike the adolescent adventure novels of George Henty, among others, Mason’s heroes define themselves less by acts of derring-do than through their quiet, anonymous, patient endurance in the service of others. The novel has spawned seven films – two made during the Great War spoke to current concerns – but the most memorable were the 1939 version produced by Alexander Korda on the eve of another war, reviewed in these pages by Shlomo Schwartzberg, and a 2002 version by Shekhar Kapur. The acclaimed Korda film is more in keeping with the jingoism of the time in which it was made rather than the spirit of Mason’s tale, while Kapur’s adaptation is more faithful to the spirit and intent of the novel.

The novel's protagonist, Harry Feversham, himself the progeny of a long line of military heroes but with a poet’s sensibility, is haunted by the fear that he will disgrace himself, a terror derived from the code of family honour inculcated by his domineering father and indirectly by the gallery of portraits that peered out at him in his childhood. When his regiment is deployed to the Sudan in 1882 to suppress an Arab uprising, Feversham resigns his commission and is immediately branded a coward when three former fellow officers send him a symbolic white feather, and he receives a fourth from his fiancée, Ethne Eustace. After she breaks off the engagement, he sets out alone to Egypt to regain his good name, and more importantly, to expiate his own internal tyranny. There, disguising himself as a lunatic Greek musician, he spends three years learning the languages of the camel drivers in the bazaars before surreptitiously heading south to shadow his former regiment in the Sudan and do undercover work on its behalf. He rehabilitates himself through his courage and indifference to danger or death, and as a result of his efforts, he absolves himself of his sense of cowardliness. In the book’s most compelling chapters, Mason describes Feversham’s most demanding and penitential acts when he sets out to be captured and sent to the pestilent hellhole prison of the “House of Stone” at Omdurman, the Dervish capital. There he shares the suffering of one of his former compatriots who has endured a ghastly three-year imprisonment. In time the two miraculously manage to escape. His redemption complete and his manhood restored, he can return to England and perhaps renew his relationship with the woman who once repudiated him.

I would suggest that the novel has largely been misunderstood. Writing in Salon, Charles Taylor notes that the novel is “probably the purest fictional example of the mindset that has led countless young men through the ages to turn themselves into cannon fodder.” If males read this novel primarily as an imperialist adventure and the need to demonstrate derring-do to avoid the “cowardly” label, Taylor’s comment makes sense. Young men would likely follow the most suicidal orders to ‘go over the top’ into a hurricane of bullets to avoid this stigma. Yet there is precious little in Four Feathers that suggests it is a gung ho celebration of war. Unlike the subsequent films, there are few battle scenes. It is rather about the thoughts and regrets of a few individuals caught up in the vortex of Britain’s colonial wars and the loss, restoration and maintenance of honour. If there is an underlying message, it is that sometimes individuals who do not wish to fight wars can be brave. Taylor’s musings would have had greater resonance had he been alluding to the adventures written primarily for young adolescents.

Most of the novel takes place in England where the characters, primarily Ethne, inquire about Feversham’s whereabouts and wellbeing. She is more prominently featured than Feversham. After he devises a plan and departs for Egypt, he largely disappears from the novel. Even in the chapters set in the Middle East, apart from the “House of Stone” chapters near the conclusion, Feversham is a shadowy figure more talked about than seen. The novel is largely a character study on how two men respond to adversity and how a woman wrestles with her conflicted feelings. Harry Feversham and his best friend, John Durrance, love the same woman. Durrance recognizes that Ethne does not love him. His pain is compounded when he is blinded by sunstroke in the Sudan. In England he masks his tribulations and disappointments with a heady dose of stoicism and compensates for his blindness by sharpening his wits through the use of logic and aural observation.

Alexander Korda’s 1939 Four Feathers provides a Kiplingesque, epic-imperialist dimension that is largely absent from the novel. In producing a trilogy of films, including Sanders of the River (1935) and The Drum (1938), Korda, whose friends included the staunch imperialist Winston Churchill, could be considered one of the great cinematic polemicists for the British Empire. After a brief prelude set in a country house in 1885 England where aging Crimean War veterans lament the death of General Charles Gordon, the action takes place ten years later primarily in the Sudan during the 1895-98 campaign where, under the direction of Herbert Kitchener, the British overwhelmingly defeat the Dervishes and avenge the death of Gordon. Feversham is given much greater prominence in the film as the leading character who atones for his “cowardliness” by disguising himself as a branded, speechless Senghali tribesman and by heroically saving the lives of the three officers who sent him white feathers. And he turns starved and diseased prisoners into a militia that helps win the war, a gilding of the lily that vastly underplays the subtlety in Mason’s writing. This was the kind of role model that Britain needed as it was about to enter a much more dangerous war.

Alexander Korda's The Four Feathers (1939)
Korda also undertakes several interpretative departures from the novel. He alters Mason’s reason for Feversham resigning his military commission. Whereas in the novel, Feversham rejects his father’s overbearing authority and acts more like his free-spirited deceased mother, the film strongly suggests that his resignation was an expression of his revulsion toward militarism. The film is also studded with Orientalist stereotypes. The Dervishes, characterized as cruel, tyrannical and savage toward defenceless natives, are pejoratively labeled the Fuzzy Wuzzies (an epithet not found in the book). By contrast, apart from a few references to “savage” and “callous country,” the Arabs in the novel are accorded respect, even dignity. One such person is Abou Fatima, formerly a servant of Gordon and now of Feversham, who helps to facilitate the escape of the two Englishmen, but is completely absent from Korda's film. Korda’s Four Feathers was the last of the imperialist films in large part because in the upcoming war against German expansionism and Japanese imperialism, the concept of empire became ideologically suspect. When the film was re-released in 1943, the shift in the zeitgeist was evident in The Times' critique: “This film with its glib Imperialism and its juvenile attitude toward war…seems to belong to another age.”

Since the 2002 Four Feathers was released, the film has received a barrage of derisive reviews. The characters do not sound or look British. They express emotions that would have embarrassed the stiff-upper-lip soldiers of the late nineteenth century. Kapur’s Harry Feversham appears as a callow youth ignorant about languages. The film was too much a critique of imperialism; the sense of duty and honour that motivated British soldiers has been replaced by the theme of comradeship. If this film was merely an updated adaptation of Korda’s 1939 film, these allegations would be entirely justified. But Kapur’s Four Feathers takes as its inspiration Mason’s 1902 novel that is almost entirely free of the imperialist jingoism found in the writings of contemporaries such as Rudyard Kipling, Rider Haggard and Edgar Wallace. Mason infuses a universality that makes it possible for a filmmaker to be faithful to the novel’s spirit and provide a modern sensibility. Since the relationship between the characters is central to the novel and the empire is merely a backdrop, one could almost read the novel as a narrative set in modern Afghanistan. Despite its flaws, the film is closer in content and spirit to the novel than its more celebrated predecessor.

The film is set in 1885 when Feversham’s regiment is about to be sent to the Sudan to suppress a Muslim Arab insurgency led by its religious leader Mohammed Ahmad, known as the Mahdi. Kapur, who experienced British colonialism in India, does offer a revisionist slant to Korda’s film by critiquing the follies of British imperialism. In the film’s opening scene, Feversham and his friends engage in a bone crunching football match which entertains genteel Victorian ladies. Kapur includes this scene to capture the late Victorian fantasy that rigorous sports were the preparation needed to successfully fight wars. Yet Feversham questions the feasibility of "killing and dying in a godforsaken desert" for the sake of a global empire. Clearly, Kapur is mocking a clergyman who calls the Sudanese “heathens” and then declares that “God has endowed the British race with a worldwide empire.” This arrogance is later exemplified by an officer in Feversham’s regiment who not only fails to heed the warning of Feversham’s Muslim protector, Abou Fatima, but has him whipped. As a result, the British experience a major military setback and a devastating retreat with losses that include one of Feversham’s friends. No wonder Abou warns Feversham about British ethnocentrism: “You English walk too proudly on this earth.”

The Four Feathers (2002)

The relationship between Abou Fatima and Harry Feversham reinforces Kapur's disdain for British haughtiness. Because the Englishman does not know the desert environment nor has he learned the Arabic language and the local native dialects, he relies on his “guardian angel,” Abou, to protect him, and he saves his life more than once. The friendship that develops between the two men – the laughter between them in one memorable scene is an expression of their mutual respect – could be an indication of Kapur’s belief that there must be an interaction between East and West, something that is perhaps hinted at in the novel. Yet Abou's motives in the film remain unclear. When Feversham asks him why the African saves his life, his only response is, “God put you in my way. I had no choice.” There is little to suggest that Feversham gives anything back to his protector even though the last image in the film suggests that the Englishman's soul will always be in the Sudan.

Despite this critical stance toward imperialism, Kapur also wants to have it both ways. Feversham, who earlier said he never wanted to be a soldier and seemed content to help his friends by risking the charge of spying, becomes a fighter to save the lives of two of his friends. One of the just criticisms that could be made of Kapur’s film is that the Arabs are presented, apart from the noble Abou Fatima, as contemptible zealots, a perspective that reflects the sensibilities of most contemporary Westerners. When the British commander informs the officer of their mission – to wild cheers – he cites the actions of the "Mohammedan fanatics," he is speaking to the zeitgeist of our times. (Although the production was completed before the attacks of 9/11, the film opened after that terrible day and some comments uttered by individuals associated with the film suggest they wanted to spike interest in the film by playing on the West versus Islam theme. According to the film’s photographer, Robert Richardson, the events depicted in the film continue to resonate because “it is about a western culture that tackles a jihad not unlike what is happening in current events today.”)

Four Feathers does explore Feversham’s complicated motives, but not entirely satisfactorily. He only accepted a commission to please his career officer father, whom he has at best a formal relationship, and to continue the military tradition of the Feversham men. Given his conditioning, he is understandably afraid. His father disowns him after he fails to discharge his duty and his fiancée Ethne spurns him as a coward. Yet Feversham’s sin was an assertion of his individuality, not his cowardliness. She ends the engagement but continues to reproach herself for not standing by him and for giving in to fear about what others would say. When Feversham decamps to the Sudan, he is not motivated to serve king or country but to regain his self-respect and the respect of his friends. He achieves that purpose but when he returns, the only motive that seems to matter is fighting for his comrades, not whether the war that his comrades fought was just. This is made explicit by Durrance in a closing address at a memorial: “In the heat of battle it ceases to be an idea or a flag for which we fight. We fight for the man on our left. We fight for the man on our right. And when the armies have scattered and the empires have fallen away, all that remains is the memory of those precious moments we spent side by side.” These are stirring contemporary sentiments and they resonate with his fellow officers in the audience but they are detached from Mason’s original context. When Kapur made the decision to disconnect the film from the novel, he might have explored whether colonial wars – or any wars – are ever just. By skirting this issue, Kapur attempts to depoliticize his film; but the imagery of westerners fighting wars against shadowy Arab armies is political regardless of his intentions. Had he confronted that question and left in Durrance’s final speech, he might have complicated the film, but that ambiguity would have made it a richer cinematic experience.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit www.thatlineofdarkness.com.

1 comment:

  1. wonderfull. Thank you for this.

    ReplyDelete