Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Four Feathers, The (1939)

Director: Zoltan Korda

From the colorful deserts of the Sudan comes a British adventure picture so large at its time that it would be presented in Technicolor. The Four Feathers is a feature about battle, cowardice, and redemption and a rather popular story adapted from the 1902 novel, but making its first appearance adapted into a sound picture. A major production in England, the film would be one of the grandest desert war pictures until the release of Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, rivaling its beautiful cinematography and grand vistas captured on celluloid.

The Four Feathers is an adventure picture about a former army British army officer redeeming himself of cowardice after resigning before deployment by putting himself in danger and saving his old army pals from death in battle. Coming from a long tradition of men who served proudly in battle, Harry Faversham (John Clements) feels obligated to be in the army since he was a boy, but on the eve of his deployment as an officer he resigns. This results with Harry branded a coward by his three friends and fellow officers, signified in the form of white feathers sent to him. On top of that retired war hero General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith), who happens to be the father of his fiancée Ethna (June Duprez) finds great displeasure in Harry’s choice as well, shaming his fiancée. Harry takes a feather from her believing she too considers him a coward.

As this great shame weighs down on him Harry determines to earn back what he has lost by traveling to land where his friends were deployed disguised as a native to aid his old company in battle as a secret spy that even his own old friends do not know about. His disguise is completed not only by dying his skin a darker tone, but with an awful self inflicted scar that would signify his status as a mute native of the land so he could get away with not speaking the language. Harry under disguise saves his old friend John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) who, due to the damaging sun, loses his eyesight gains no knowledge that it was Harry that saved him. Harry continues on to rescue his two other friends from torturous prison by leading a prisoner revolt. As a result Harry is revealed as the man that rescued his company and his story becomes popular, far exceeding even General Burroughs’ stories upon return to England a hero.

It’s a bit of a farfetched tale, especially with the likes of how the British cast plays their roles in the manner of very proper and boastful people, but apart from that with the aid of suspension of disbelief The Four Feathers produces a thrilling adventure picture with beautiful visuals. Produced by Alexander Korda’s London Pictures, the film is directed by the producer’s own brother Zoltan Korda. The feature presents itself very well, especially with the use of Technicolor to help the visuals of the Sudan to really splash on the screen.

The cast is a rather stiff mix of British actors who, like most British actors, shared time between the more dignified stage and the silver screen. Of all the actors on screen the one that would have stood out internationally, especially for Americans, would have been C. Aubrey Smith who was usually the supporting character, as he very much is here as the proud former office and father to the main character’s fiancée. Star John Clements was only an intermittent screen actor, while Ralph Richardson, who plays his good friend that Clements saves, was a rather committed stage performer. June Duprex, Clements’ love interest in the film, was a purely motion picture actress and would be a moderately popular actress for English audiences.

What is most memorable of The Four Feathers is the capturing of the desert battle sequences. Color was still a rare treat to see at the movies at this time that seeing such bold colors of the desert would really stand out in theaters when audiences came to see the picture. Technicolor captures its images so well that battle sequences from The Four Feathers would be reused in the 1955 film The Storm of the Nile.

As a war picture The Four Feathers can be a rather drab film, but it is all in how one looks at cinema. The beauty of the cinematography would definitely tell one that this was made by one of the finer studios in England. Critics give the movie very high marks for his production value and excellent portrayal of the story. Time would be rather kind to the film as it still plays rather well for a picture out of that era when war was literally breaking out in Europe and pictures of this quality from England would be put on hold. Audiences would not see the desert so beautiful shot with such overwhelmingly high reviews again until the future classic Lawrence of Arabia. The Four Feathers proves to be a rather popular story adapted many time before in the silent era of motion pictures. More adaptions would appear in the future with two British remakes in 1955 and 1977, each barrowing from this 1939 version. An American remake would appear in 2002, but it would still not outshine this visual British masterpiece.

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