A. E. W. Mason’s sweeping action novel The Four Feathers (1902) had already inspired three films by the time producer Alexander Korda got to it in 1939. It would be filmed three more times afterward. But you really haven’t seen it unless you’ve watched the Korda production, directed by Alexander’s younger brother, Zoltán, and designed by his youngest brother, Vincent. No version before or since has been able to match this film’s gritty magic (not even Zoltán’s 1955 remake, Storm over the Nile, using the same script and stretching the old location footage into CinemaScope). This Four Feathers shows how sophisticated and seductive a Boy’s Own adventure could be. Set during the British reconquest of the Sudan and retaking of Khartoum (1896–98), it’s a spine-tingling tale of heroic redemption. It’s also, next to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the most harrowingly beautiful of all desert spectaculars. The sand is never merely yellow, amber, or gold—it’s multihued and speckled with dirt and rock. The mudflats are a vile, volcanic taupe. White-sailed boats struggle up and down a Nile that glitters in chameleonic shades of brown or olive or blue.
The grandeur of the imagery makes you feel, viscerally and simultaneously, the headiness and the hubris of imperial conquest. Director Zoltán—always an undervalued filmmaker, despite superb accomplishments like Sahara (1943) and The Macomber Affair (1947)—intuits his way toward his own visual theme: the act of will it takes to conquer a landscape that can swallow up homegrown warlords and imperialists alike. In one haunting postbattle scene, the camera sees beyond the broken bodies and flocks of carrion birds to a mauve haze surrounding distant mountains.
Alexander’s nephew Michael Korda (son of Vincent) memorably wrote in Charmed Lives, his insightful family memoir, that his mogul uncle was “a Hungarian who became more British than the British themselves.” Michael’s other uncle, Zoltán, “was drawn to the ‘natives’ of British Africa and India with fierce intensity and humanity.” Michael saw their collaborations as “compromises between Zoli’s love of the natives and their way of life and Alex’s desire to produce pro-Empire pictures in praise of the white man’s burden.”
Thanks to Zoltán’s strength as a director and Alexander’s savvy as a producer, their sympathies don’t conflict in The Four Feathers. Together, they portray the moral complexity behind imperialistic ideals. Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “white man’s burden” as a call to sacrifice and service: “Take up the White Man’s burden— / Send for the best you breed— / Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need.” The Four Feathers captures that idealism and also the arrogance behind it.
Although the film streamlines the plot and rejiggers several characters (even altering the spelling of the hero’s name), and shifts the time frame forward, to when the British were about to regain their lost ground in the Sudan, it remains true to Mason’s picture of an empire streaked with sadness and rue. But Kipling is all over this movie too. “See . . . the dreaded Dervishes! Kipling’s Famous FUZZY-WUZZIES,” declared the ads, referring to the Arab and African followers of the Islamic zealot known as the Mahdi. They kill General “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum in the prologue and then pledge their allegiance to his successor, the khalifa, who lords it over the Sudan until General Kitchener avenges Gordon’s death a decade later (when the main action is set). Kipling wrote his poem “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” as a soldier’s toast to an admirable adversary: “An’ ’ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ’ayrick ’ead of ’air— / You big black boundin’ beggar—for you broke a British square!”
The “British square” was the rectangular formation of infantrymen—with two or more lines of riflemen on each side—that the Queen’s troops employed to withstand huge numbers of attackers during the empire’s African adventures. This film of The Four Feathers (unlike the novel) vividly details how the Dervishes and Fuzzy-Wuzzies break a British square. Indeed, breaking the British square can be seen as the ruling metaphor of the movie. In his masterly adaptation of Mason’s book, screenwriter R. C. Sherriff focuses ruthlessly on British traditions that box in the hero, shatter his confidence, and compel him to resign his commission. When that happens, the friends of Harry Faversham (John Clements) see him as a coward. But the audience soon learns that he’s not afraid of the fight.
Faversham genuinely abhors what he calls his country’s “idiotic Egyptian adventure.” He views the British pursuit of glory in India, Africa, and China as a way for imperialists to escape domestic responsibilities. And he explains his resignation to his betrothed, Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), in terms of this disdain for the vanity and excesses of the empire. She agrees with him politically, but cannot support him. Harry feels that his traditional obligations ended with the death of his severe military father; Ethne, also the child of a retired general (played by C. Aubrey Smith, who is magnificently blustery—and charming), will not break the square for her marriage.
By the end, Faversham becomes the bravest and most resourceful of all British soldiers in North Africa. He does so by devising his own odyssey. The movie counterpoints his fate with that of his totally square friend, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), who has vied with Harry for Ethne’s hand. Durrance exemplifies military virtue: he is smart, gallant, and commanding. But Durrance ends up blind and bereft, with only his honor to comfort him. It’s the man of imagination, Faversham, who pushes tradition forward—and finally gets the girl.
Generations of critics have praised the film for its stirring portrayal of the British military ethos. But what gives The Four Feathers its ceaseless vitality is the way its images portray army discipline and pomp as hard-won feats. The British units either fill the square old movie frame—and, as they loop around in tight formation, threaten to smash against its edges—or bisect it on the march, cutting exotic climes in two with indomitable precision.
The movie’s title refers to the shriveling response of Faversham’s army mates to what they view as his ignoble fear. The timing of his resignation couldn’t be more suspect: he leaves the army on the eve of his company’s departure to fight the khalifa. His three best soldier friends—his fiancée’s brother Peter, an amiable henchman named Thomas “Fat Face” Willoughby, and the redoubtable Durrance—each send Faversham a contemptuous symbol of cowardice: a white feather.
Receiving the feathers at Ethne’s house, Faversham realizes in an instant that his motives for resigning were not, in fact, pure. He feels that he has indeed been a coward. (We see that he’s really afraid of being a coward—of freezing up in a crisis and letting his comrades down.) He plucks the fourth white feather from the disenchanted Ethne’s plume as they break off their engagement. To test his mettle, avenge his friends’ insult—and, most nobly, to protect them—Faversham goes off to the Sudan on his own. He aims to redeem himself in his friends’ eyes and return their feathers, one by one, to certify his rehabilitation. In Egypt, he adopts the disguise of a Sangali tribesman. The khalifa’s men have ripped out the Sangalis’ tongues and branded their foreheads to punish them for disobedience; this way, Faversham’s inability to speak Arabic won’t be an issue. The scene in which he submits to the branding is both surgically sure and startling. An Egyptian doctor applies the hot iron, smoke rises from the searing of the flesh, and what looks like a split pink sausage emerges in the middle of Faversham’s forehead. When the medic proclaims him a brave man, Faversham faintly smiles. His dazed expression suggests an emotion deeper and more complicated than pride; Faversham experiences release. As Kipling writes in “Hymn to Physical Pain,” this pain has briefly wiped away “the soul’s distress / And memory of her sins.”
The movie is partly about the traumatic and healing powers of memory. The opening sequence—which resonates throughout the film and, indeed, movie history—proves that one man’s proud memories are another man’s nightmares. On Harry’s fifteenth birthday, General Faversham hosts a dinner for Crimean War pals, including General Burroughs. They swap war stories—most famously, Burroughs’s comical reenactment of the Battle of Balaclava. (He depicts the Russian guns with nuts, the “thin red line” of British soldiers with a ribbon of wine, his commander with an apple—and himself with a mighty pineapple.) Several of these nostalgic tales dramatize the humiliation (and even, in one case, the suicide) of men who fail or shirk their duty under fire. General Faversham wants these tales to toughen up his son. Instead, they scar him for life. At 11 p.m., he leaves the table and ascends the staircase to his room. The portraits of his family’s war heroes, lit by a candle, are as terrifying to him as any bloody rogues’ gallery. Ten years later, at Ethne’s coming-of-age ball, her father announces her engagement to Harry, and she tells her fiancé that they’re creating a precious memory and that memories offer a sure, joyous view of life, free of shadows. Harry doesn’t tell her, “Only the happy ones.” But that’s what the audience is thinking.
The Four Feathers never veers from its strong, clear line of action. Yet its perfectly judged scenes contain heart-piercing nuances. The Kordas’ British version of the Tradition of Quality never reaped greater artistic rewards than it does here. It’s a Zoltán Korda film, but he worked with an all-star team of collaborators, including Alexander (who could be a first-rate director himself), Sherriff (whose other credits include the scripts for The Invisible Man and, later,
Odd Man Out), and second-unit director André De Toth (who went on to cowrite the story for The Gunfighter, direct film noir and 3-D classics, and do second unit for David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia). Editor Henry Cornelius was a cutting-room wunderkind who gained renown as the director of Genevieve and I Am a Camera, before dying at the age of forty-four. Chief cinematographer Georges Périnal had shot René Clair’s breakthrough films and Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, and would go on to shoot the Carol Reed–Graham Greene classic The Fallen Idol. Périnal is the one responsible for—in the words of novelist–movie critic–screenwriter Greene—“nocturnal London smoking up through Faversham’s grey windows.” But Osmond Borradaile photographed the location footage, and the camera operators included several great cinematographers of the future: Robert Krasker
(The Third Man), Jack Cardiff (The African Queen), and Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey).
They and the cast all do their jobs so well that the action becomes poetic. You don’t just feel the heat on Durrance’s head when he loses his helmet and the sun beats into him until he’s blind. You share his spiraling vertigo as he stands on a craggy hill, watches the helmet tumble down among the rocks, scrambles after it, and collapses. He sees that he has succeeded at drawing out the khalifa’s men and diverting them from the main force of the British Army. But he drops to the sand senseless just when that mission is accomplished. Soon after his soldiers bring him back to his tent and then to his endangered base camp, the Dervishes and Fuzzy-Wuzzies break his British square in a night battle lit by flames. In his Sangali disguise, Faversham reaches the British camp with the Fuzzy-Wuzzies and saves Durrance, twice. When Durrance, half-mad, calls for help after the battle, Faversham, still in character, can’t answer him—he rouses only buzzards with each cry. Greene described the birds’ “grimy serrated Lisle-street wings dropping like weighted parachutes.” The brilliant filmmaking brings psychological depth to nearly every moment. You remember that General Burroughs has asked Durrance to keep an eye on his son, Peter—and now Durrance is blind. He can’t see that the Dervishes and Fuzzy-Wuzzies are dragging Peter and Willoughby through the sand.
The Four Feathers develops tragic heft and esprit de corps as a sort of buddy-buddy-buddy film. Durrance, Peter, and Willoughby share the valor and horror of warfare in an exotic clime. And so does the outsider, Faversham, who feels these friends have goaded him out of fearfulness. He’s anxious to measure up to them—and they are worthy yardsticks. Richardson’s glory-bound Captain Durrance is as devoid of sentimentality as a brick; he strives to make his torment seem as light to others as his damnable feather. When this supersane man, stricken blind, drifts into dementia, shouting “Load, aim, fire!” to his murdered men, he’s as heartbreaking as Lear on the heath. At the same time, we see Faversham’s growth in Clements’s surprisingly robust performance. Sickly as the prewar Faversham, he’s vigorous and unfettered in his Sangali rags, like Lawrence in his Bedouin robes. He hears his former rival Durrance call for Ethne—and Clements’s eyes tell you that his heart sinks for all three of them. The doctor who brands Faversham in Egypt can’t understand his pursuit of courage; his advice is to be a coward and be happy. But Faversham answers that he was a coward and wasn’t happy. The actor switches on a spiritual pilot light while his character weathers isolation and torture. The Kordas wanted to make Lawrence of Arabia with Clements back in the 1930s. Like Peter O’Toole, he could pull off Conradian combinations of antihero and superhero.
The Sangali disguise allows Zoltán Korda to depict the unjust treatment of natives at the hands of the British and their own chieftains—especially when Faversham attempts to free Burroughs and Willoughby from the khalifa’s fearsome prison at Omdurman. The third Korda, Vincent, gets to show his genius in the design of the khalifa’s capital. He creates a menacing cityscape, anarchic in its look and structure—a capital that could work only with slave labor.
The film runs a brisk 115 minutes. It cannot encompass all of the book’s subtleties—particularly Durrance’s intricate courtship of Ethne after he returns to England blind, and his exacting code of friendship. But its superb double climax balances tragedy and comedy and gives Durrance his due. Richardson is at his uncanny best as Durrance paces his London rooms in the dark, while news of Kitchener’s victory rumbles up from the street. Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley), a friend to all of the film’s major characters, arrives bearing the diagnosis that Durrance’s blindness is incurable—and carrying a newspaper that reports the heroism of Harry Faversham. When Durrance learns both these things, Richardson embodies stoic valor as nobly as a classical sculpture. With swift efficiency and dignity, he moves to free Ethne of any promises she has made to him. But the most exalting passage in this scene comes when Durrance reads poetry in braille. He chooses not Kipling but Shakespeare, and not Henry V but The Tempest, and not Prospero but Caliban: “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices / That, if I then had waked after long sleep / Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming / The clouds methought would open, and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again.” Durrance, the ultimate soldier, has found solace in Caliban, the eruptive id.
Faversham has the movie’s final words. At a Burroughs family-and-friends reunion, attended by all the main characters except Durrance, he finds a way to return the fourth feather to Ethne: he explodes her father’s boast that he began the charge at the Battle of Balaclava. (His horse did.) The Four Feathers celebrates patriotism and military pride, but it also subverts them—it’s the rare epic that gives the white-haired elders their comeuppance. Faversham wins Ethne on his own terms. Right up to the end, he breaks the British square.
Michael Sragow is the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master and has edited two volumes of James Agee’s work for the Library of America.