The Four Feathers: Review
The Four Feathers is a glorious Technicolor example of one of the period’s great adventure epics from a member of one of England’s most creative filmmaking families, Zoltan Korda. This 1939 version of the classic English tale was to the UK what Gone with the Wind was to the US. The majestic and beautifully shot cinematic masterpiece represents all that was good and right about the glory of the British Empire, and yet, at the same time, manages to show the injustices of war.
When a British army officer’s father dies, he decides to resign his commission, which he had taken only to please his father. Unfortunately, it is on the eve of his unit's embarkation for a mission against Egyptian rebels, and he soon receives three white feathers from his fellow officers. The feathers represent a vote of cowardice and he interprets his fiancée's rebuke to be a fourth feather. Alone in the world, he sets off for Egypt and the Sudan to prove his bravery by secretly aiding his former comrades while disguised as a mute Arab. He then manages to rescue all three of his accusers and returns to England to reclaim his fiancée's love and admiration.
I cannot overstate the beauty of this gorgeous film. Cinematographers Osmond Borradaile and Georges Perinal were nominated for an Oscar for their work here, and rightly so (Perinal would go on to receive the statue the following year for another Korda film, The Thief of Baghdad). In particular, the post battle scene where injured officer Ralph Richardson (The Heiress) wanders about the sweltering desert is stunningly memorable - you can practically feel the sweat dripping from his forehead. And the interior scenes are just as carefully constructed, with every bit of pomp and majesty popping off the screen as well-dressed ladies parade about with their uniformed escorts.
Along with the remarkable Richardson (one of my all time favorite British actors), the cast is quiet good, particularly the little known John Clements as the demoralized Faversham. Clements gives a fine performance as the young man with unpopular ideas of how best to serve God and country and is surprisingly convincing when disguised as a native, unrecognizable to even his closest friends. But the real standout for me is Richardson as the blinded soldier who returns home to find what he thinks is love from his friend’s ex-fiancé. The moment he discovers the object of his devotion only feels pity for him is one that will break your heart as it simultaneously fills you with admiration for a man who suddenly realizes where he stands and what he must do about it. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.
Once you have seen this film from Zoltan you should check out the other fine films he and brother Alexander made throughout the golden age of cinema. The list is rather prestigious (The Private Life of Henry VIII, Jungle Book, etc.), but after you’ve seeing The Four Feathers, you will come to expect the quality.