Director: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff
Based on a Novel by: A.E.W. Mason
Starring: John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez
Producer: Alexander Korda
Running Time: 115 min
BBFC Certificate: U
War movies are a genre of film that I often think I don't like, but when I actually pause for thought about it I realise I like quite a lot of them. Apocalypse Now is one of my all time favourite films, I always had a soft spot for Platoon too and Saving Private Ryan for instance, whilst slightly flawed at times, contains a couple of the most incredible set-pieces of all time. I think it's more that the idea of war movies kind of bothers me. I'm quite a peaceful sort that avoids conflict whenever possible and the idea of glamorising war always bothers me. So the war movies that I generally don't like are big bombastic ones that are just celebrating the heroes and ignoring the bigger picture. For that reason I often pass on watching a lot of the old war movies, particularly those made during times of conflict, because all that propaganda and bravado rubs me up the wrong way.
So when I saw The Four Feathers pop up on a press release I wasn't quite sure whether to go for it. My dislike for the dated, simplistic values of dying for one's country etc. was saying no, but the film's classic pedigree and a recently blossoming fondness for old fashioned melodramatic filmmaking said yes. The latter won over of course, so I decided to take the film on.
For those that haven't seen any of the iterations of A.E.W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers (there are six listed on IMDB although three are from pre-1930's and are probably little seen these days if available at all), it tells the story of Harry Faversham (John Clements). Born to a family of famous military men stretching back for centuries, Harry's father forces him into the services from a youngster. However, when he gets engaged to Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) he finally says enough is enough and hands in his resignation, just before he is due to ship out to Sudan to take on the Dervishes (as they are called in the film – according to Wikipedia these are people treading a Sufi Muslim ascetic path).
His comrades in arms aren't happy about this and send him three white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, and the shame he can see in his fiancée's eyes cause him to ask her to give him the important fourth feather. The marriage is called off and Harry shunned by all but the kindly Dr Sutton (Frederick Culley). However, Harry eventually confronts his fear and cowardice and decides to take extreme action. He poses as a mute Sengali tribesman, even getting literally branded as one. These are slaves to the Dervishes so he manages to get behind enemy lines with the intention of helping his friends in the Sudan. So begins the adventure which sees Harry go to extreme lengths to keep his friends alive and prove his worth as a soldier and a man.
The core values being put forward of there being great shame and pure cowardice in not wanting to fight and die for your country did bother me a little and the first half an hour in particular when this is being rammed down your throat hasn't aged well. However, once Harry begins his mission of redemption, the film becomes an exciting, well paced action adventure.
This being an Alexander Korda production, directed by his brother Zoltan Korda, it's a feast for the eyes. The costumes and set design are lavish and colourful when in Britain and seem impressively authentic when overseas. No expense is spared on using extras either and, when matched with some great location work, make for some wonderful sweeping wide shots, especially during the battle scenes. Speaking of which, these are generally pretty impressive. They're not as realistic or gory as in modern war movies, but they're rather violent for the time and very well mounted.
The more stagey scenes in the UK aren't quite as mind-blowing, but they're effective enough. I actually got a bit emotional when Harry's friend John (Ralph Richardson) finally finds out who saved his life at the end. The performances can be quite 'of their time' with John's violent bout of sun stroke proving almost comically hammy. He pulls off a reasonable blind act later on though as the exposure claims John's eyesight. John Clements is a little bland in the lead role, but you do care for his character and want him to succeed.
So although dated, particularly in the first half hour, The Four Feathers becomes a grand old tale of adventure and heroism as it moves on, which makes for a rousingly entertaining watch.
The Four Feathers is out in on Blu-Ray on 1st September, released by Network. The film looks great in HD, with a stellar job done on restoration. There is very little damage to the print, the natural grain has been retained and the colours come through nicely, if slightly muted, but that's probably how it should look as it was from the early days of colour film. The audio restoration is strong too, with Miklós Rózsa's score coming through nicely.
For special features, as well as the usual trailer and image gallery, Network has provided a 'Day at Denham' newsreel film and an archive interview with Ralph Richardson.