War Movie Mondays: ‘The Four Feathers’ (1939)

This week’s pick is yet another African adventure. Zoltan Korda (Sahara) directs the 1939 version of The Four Feathers based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason, which is one of the greatest redemption stories set during the Sudanese campaign to reclaim the region ten years after the death of General Gordon and the siege of Khartoum.

Both Zoltan and his brother Alexander (the Ridley and Tony Scott of their day) direct with amazing precision and deliver a fantastic period piece. The cast are John Clements (Harry Faversham), Ralph Richardson (Capt. John Durrance), June Duprez (Ethne Burroughs), Donald Gray (Lt. Peter Burroughs), Jack Allen (Lt. Willoughby), Frederick Culley (Dr. Sutton), and C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs).

The story begins in 1895 where after ten years, a British expeditionary force is sent to reclaim the Sudan and to avenge the death of General Charles Gordon who was killed by a Muslim army which is now led by the Kalifa (John Laurie). Lt. Harry Faversham (Clements) comes from a long line of military men in his family and joined the Surrey Regiment which has been chosen to lead the expedition along with General Sir Herbert Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army.

Harry’s father has passed away and Harry feels that he can now go on with his own life and stop trying to convince himself that army life is what he was destined for. On the eve of his regiment’s departure, Harry resigns his commission. His fiance Ethne (Duprez) learns of Harry’s resignation and so has her father General Burroughs (Smith) a hero of The Crimean War and an old friend of Harry’s father. General Burroughs ignores Harry’s presence as he tells Ethne about the grand send off the regiment had as it embarked across the English Channel towards Egypt.

General Burroughs treats Harry with total contempt. Ethne is confused about the decision Harry has made, even though Harry has explained to her that now they can work on building a life together. A package arrives which is addressed to Harry. Harry opens the parcel and finds three white feathers with calling cards attached to them from his comrades Capt. Durrance (Richardson), Lt. Burroughs (Gray), and Willougby (Allen). Harry has been branded a coward by his comrades who are angry over his resignation. Puzzled as to why there are only three rather than four feathers, Harry plucks a feather from Ethne’s fan and demands that she give it to him for she also thinks him a coward. Harry leaves and begins to reconsider his actions and admits that he was in fact fearful and cowardly.

Harry relies on the kindliness of Dr. Sutton (Culley) who was also a friend of his father and on Harry’s fifteenth birthday, gave him a business card and asked Harry to call on him whenever he needed something. Harry realizes that what he did was in-fact wrong and he must make amends for his actions. While in the Sudan, the Surrey Regiment is attacked by the Sudanese rebels and Harry’s comrades are in danger. Harry leaves England and embarks for the Sudan by way of Egypt. Harry travels in disguise as a Sangali, an Arabic tribe who have had their tongues cut out. Harry chooses this cover due to his lack of understanding or speaking the local dialect. He informs the doctor that he will try to send word if he can but if he hears no word from him in one year, the doctor is to inform Ethne that he is dead, and why he has set out on this adventure to redeem his honor and to save his dear friends.

The film is wonderfully paced with a Hollywood style that very few directors attempt anymore, or don’t know how to pull off. Korda is a masterful director who really knows how to set up every single shot, and Georges Perinal’s cinematography is incredible; especially the scene where young Harry is looking at the portraits of the military men in his family. The light of the candle gives the scene the perfect sense that the young Harry’s future may become yet another portrait hanging on the wall of his family’s estate, a future the young Harry didn’t want for himself. The technicolor look of the film is also fantastic and allows the audience to take in the beautiful, actual Sudanese landscapes in the film.

Like all true epics, the hero overcomes tremendous powers of adversity and sets out to correct the things which got him into his predicament. The film is a grand spectacle and every thundering scene is amazing, especially the siege of Khartoum where Harry who is still disguised as a mute Arab tribesmen, informs his friends Lt. Burroughs and Willougby that he plans to get them out of prison and to let the British know that they and survivors of Gordon’s command are still held by the Kalifa’s army.

My favorite scene is when Harry rescues Capt. Durrance who has been blinded from sunstroke during a battle with the Mahdist army of the Kalifa. Durrance’s Company has been wiped out and he tries to commit suicide due to his loss of sight. Harry takes him across the desert and by river to a British encampment where Durrance is discharged and sent back home to Britain. All that time, Harry kept his identity from his dear friend and saved him from certain death in the desert. Hardly the act of a coward.

The Four Feathers is available on DVD through MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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