Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Courage and Cowardice: Criterion’s release of The Four Feathers (1939)

The Four Feathers – the classic 1939 Alexander Korda production recently released by Criterion in a spanking, spiffy new digital restoration – is an uneven, but entertaining movie; one that doesn’t entirely balance its large scale and very impressive battle sequences with its quieter, dialogue-driven scenes. More significantly, it sends out a mixed message about courage, cowardice and doing what one believes in.

Based on A.E.W. Masons’ 1902 novel, and brought to film an extraordinary seven times, this version, directed by Zoltan Korda, Alexander’s brother, is the most famous one, an adventure film cast in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s lauding of all things British, including its imperialistic adventures abroad. The latter is the subtext of The Four Feathers, which centres around Harry Faversham (John Clements), a sensitive young man whose family tradition  has seen all its men serve in the military. When his unit is sent to Egypt – to engage the Sudanese in an attempt to retake Khartoum, captured by Arab armies a decade earlier – he resigns his commission. That act, which he carries out because of a fervent wish to concentrate on his home life, such as his impending marriage to Ethne (June Duprez), a daughter of a general, has him labelled a coward by his three closest friends. They each send him a white feather as a sign of their disapproval of his ‘cowardice.’ (White is the colour of peace, of course, but that option doesn’t seem to exist in the gung-ho build-up to war.) But it’s the final feather, the fourth one, given to him by Ethne, albeit not without him daring her to do so, that prompts him to take drastic action to regain his honour.

June Duprez and John Clements in The Four Feathers
And that’s where the film falters. Harry – who seems so sure of himself and is portrayed, even at age fifteen, ten years before his resignation, as someone who doesn’t fit the military mold – suddenly regrets what’s he done and decides to head into the field of battle to prove his mettle, an act which propels the rest of the movie and impacts on the fates of his three friends and Ethne. But since he’s clearly not a coward, why then does he have to prove himself anew? The film’s screenplay (courtesy of R.C.. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis – the latter two burnished the movies’ dialogue) doesn’t seem to pick up on Harry’s actual moral weakness: a man who lacks the courage of his conviction. He  takes a stand implicitly against the futility of war, then jettisons everything to go off to fight after all. As Mr., Spock would put it, that’s ‘most illogical.’ (In fairness, he’s not sure exactly how he will prove himself once in the Sudan, but he is clearly ready to don arms if necessary.) People are entitled to change their minds, in movies as in real life, but since The Four Feathers makes such a big deal about his not being a coward, Harry’s subsequent steps to prove that he's not are contradictory, to say the least. It’s also stretching credibility for the film to enable Harry to save not one but all three of his friends’ lives in the process.

Also problematic, is the film’s somewhat racist views – the derogatory term Fuzzy Wuzzies to denote Arabs is used and not in a condemnatory fashion – an understandable product of the film’s time, but disturbing, nonetheless. At least, the Arabs are not portrayed as cowards;  how could they be since they wield swords against British firepower, including cannons? But the movie doesn’t blink an eye at the questionable British presence in Arabia to begin with. It’s indicated that an Anglo-Egyptian army sets out to fight the Sudanese, but we never learn how the Egyptians feel about making war on their neighbours. (If you want a more sophisticated take on British imperialism and brutality, which is also non-existent in the 1939 film, you’ll need to check  out the surprisingly good 2002 remake of The Four Feathers, well directed by Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen, Elizabeth) with Heath Ledger in the lead role as Harry Faversham.)

Ralph Richardson in The Four Feathers
Illogic, and Clements’ stiffly uninteresting performance aside, The Four Feathers, which also sags a bit in the middle, still has much to offer the viewer. It's beautifully shot in colour by cinematographer Georges PĂ©rinal (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a decidedly different take on the British military), mostly on location in the Sudan, which enhances the movie’s look considerably. The film also moves confidently whenever it’s on the battlefield, with Zoltan Korda expertly bringing the hazards and chaos of war to vivid cinematic life. (He doesn’t, though, have David Lean’s or Steven Spielberg’s knack for locating individuals amidst the broad canvas on screen.) There’s also a terrific performance on hand from Ralph Richardson as Captain John Durrance, Harry’s rival for Ethne’s affections, whose experience in Sudan change him forever. I wish he’d played Harry; he would have made the part more of an indelible one. C. Aubrey Smith as Ethne's father, the blowhard General Burroughs, who is overly fond of rehashing his battle stories, is fine, too - and funny. (Duprez is okay but her part is mostly decorative; the film is not overly concerned with the distaff point of view.) And as a deft portrait of English society cheering on their soldiers (but with the wives worrying about whether their men will come home), and taking their battlefield defeats to heart (a not insignificant point of view in a film released on the eve of the Second World War.), the movie is quite compelling. If you can get past its problematic attitudes and plot, The Four Feathers makes for a stylish, effective melodrama.

***   DVD extras include, the movie’s trailer, an illuminating short film, A Day at Denham, about the making of The Four Feathers; commentary by film historian Charles Drazin, author of a book on Alexander Korda entitled Korda: Britain’s Movie Mogul; and a 2011 interview with Zoltan Korda’s oldest son David. Film Critic Michael Sragow also supplies an essay on the movie.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.


  1. Brilliant application of 21st Century morals to a 1939 film depicting Victorian colonialism.

  2. I pretty much share your views on the 1939 film. And yes, I've seen the 2002 version, as well . . . which I happen to like a little better.