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Four Feathers, The (1939)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Four Feathers, The (1939)
DirectorZoltan Korda
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
ProducerAlexander Korda
ScriptR.C. Sherriff
 Lajos Biro
 Arthur Wimperis
PhotographyGeorges Périnal
 Osmond Borradaile

Cast: John Clements (Harry Faversham); Ralph Richardson (Captain John Durrance); C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs); June Duprez (Ethne Burroughs); Allan Jeayes (General Faversham)

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The young son of a war hero is branded a coward by his friends and fiancée when he resigns his military commission shortly before his regiment is due to leave for action in the Sudan.

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This spectacular Sudanese War epic showcases both the best and worst of the Alexander Korda school of filmmaking. A.E.W. Mason's novel had been filmed three times already by 1939, but it was this version, released on the eve of war, which captured the public imagination.

Like all of London Films' late '30s Empire cycle (Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (1937), The Drum (1938)), The Four Feathers featured the talents of all three Korda brothers, produced by Alex, directed by Zoltan and with art direction by Vincent.

The film is a treatise on heroism, set ten years after the fall of Khartoum in 1885. John Clements, who gave brief but memorable performances in previous Korda productions Things to Come (1936) and Knight Without Armour (1937), is a model of courage, resolve and intuition as Harry Faversham, who is driven to extreme lengths to prove himself when he is branded a coward by his friends and fiancée.

The Four Feathers is satisfying as a war film, with stirring battle scenes - the jailbreak sequence is spectacular - and a spirit of breathless boy's own adventure throughout, with Faversham - disguised as a mute native - single-handedly rescuing each of the friends who doubted him, and ultimately leading the attack on the garrison which secures victory for the British forces. But the whiff of racism is unmistakeable, and its celebration of empire is hard to stomach today.

There are, though, some fine performances, with Ralph Richardson good value as Faversham's love rival, Captain John Durrance. In one extraordinary scene, Durrance falls victim to sun blindness just before a key battle. Not wanting to damage the morale of his men, he refuses to acknowledge anything is wrong. Depending on your point of view, this act demonstrates either classic British 'stiff upper lip', self-sacrifice and endurance in the face of a crisis, or an absurd degree of pride and a potentially dangerous denial of reality.

Military advisors were on hand to ensure period details were correct. In the end, though, Alex Korda's taste for lush images got the better of him - in one lavish sequence, which takes place at a ball, the soldiers were dressed in blue tunics. Korda insisted they be changed to scarlet, despite the protests of the advisors, exclaiming, "but this is Technicolor!".

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. War stories (3:30)
2. The white feathers (4:59)
3. Blind (1:08)
4. Jailbreak (1:38)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Ships with Wings (1941)
Biró, Lajos (1883-1948)
Cornelius, Henry (1913-1958)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
Périnal, Georges (1897-1965)
Unsworth, Geoffrey (1914-1978)
1930s Writers and Directors
British African Stories
Korda and Empire
Literary Adaptation