The Korda Brothers gave us an epic filming of A.E.W. Mason's popular and oft-filmed 1902 novel The Four Feathers in cinema's golden year, 1939. Producer Alexander Korda gave us the glory of Technicolor to capture filming locations in Sudan. Director Zoltan Korda, a former cavalry officer, handled the spectacle of thousands of extras and the intimacy of characters battling only themselves with equal skill. Art director Vincent Korda took us from sumptuous English country estates to a crowded prison in the desert.
"There's no place in England for a coward."
- General Faversham (Allan Jeayes)
Harry Faversham (John Clements) has spent his life in the sure and certain knowledge of one thing; he is a disappointment to his father, the General. Harry's gentle nature and love of poetry have his father convinced that Harry is a coward who will not live up to his military ancestors. The youngster's head is filled with tales of glory and tales of the disgrace of cowards, and their grizzly deaths or suicides. If these lessons were intended to stick, they did. If these lessons were meant to inspire, they did not.
June Duprez, John Clements
The adult Harry has become a soldier to please his father. He has fallen in love with Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), the daughter of an old comrade of his father (C. Aubrey Smith), and the sister of a fellow officer, Peter. Tom Willoughby (Jack Allen) and John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) round up what should be a close-knit group of friends. Captain Durrance is also in love with Ethne and Ethne's brother Peter wishes his sister returned John's regard. He senses something "off" about Harry.
Man's memory is long and selective. A decade earlier General Gordon was routed at Khartoum and now the British are sending General Kitchener to avenge that loss and stabilize their interests in the region. On the eve of their deployment to Africa, Harry resigns his commission. His reasoning is sound as he only entered the military for his father and now his father is dead. Harry is engaged to be married and feels he can serve his country best at home.
Harry is presented with three white feathers from Captains Durrance, Burroughs, and Willoughby signifying their belief in his cowardice. When Ethne also disapproves of Harry's actions, citing their tradition and the people who rely on them, Harry must face some uncomfortable truths about himself. Taking a white feather from Ethne's hat, he has her present him with the one which will complete the set of four. Harry is now determined to prove himself and make them each take their feathers back.
Harry consults a doctor in Egypt who can dye his skin so Harry can move freely as a mute Sangali native. The brand worn by the group cannot be imitated, so Harry must endure branding. The doctor commends him for his bravery. Joining labourers for the British, Harry is able to blend with the enemy and with his "friends."
John Clements, Ralph Richardson
John Durrance and his company of men are tasked with causing a distraction to the Dervishes in order for Kitchener to regroup. During this assignment, John is the victim of sunstroke which leaves him blind and the company is overwhelmed by the Dervishes. Peter and Tom are taken captive and only John and Harry remain. Ascertaining John's predicament, the mute native takes his old friend through the deprivations of the desert to the bounty of the Nile, leaving him near a fort. Will John ever discover his saviour or the returned white feather among his effects?
Braving torture, Harry next seeks out Peter and Tom in the prison at Omdurman. Many have been in that hellhole for decades. What can Harry do to rescue his friends and make them take back their white feathers? Is there anything he can do to win back Ethne's love? Does he not know he always had Ethne's love?
The screenplay for The Four Feathers is filled with interesting dialogue and many thoughtful conversations. There is humour and heartbreak in this adventure and romance all wrapped up in a Technicolor spectacular. The Four Feathers is a great achievement and great entertainment.
TCM is screening The Four Feathers this month on Friday, the 5th of July as part of their month-long salute to the great films of 1939. The Four Feathers starts off the programming day, and if you're not careful, you will be glued to your couch for hours!