Criterion // 1939 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 17th, 2011
Real adventure! Real life in the raw!
"Why worry? Be a coward and be happy."
Harry Faversham (John Clements, Gandhi) has never been enthusiastic about his career as a soldier, but it was a career his patriotic father General Faversham (Allan Jeayes, The Thief of Bagdad) pushed him into. Harry would much prefer to simply read his poetry and lead a quiet life, but he has distinguished himself as an officer for the sake of keeping his father happy. After General Faversham passes away, Harry promptly resigns his post (despite the fact that his company is about to be shipped overseas). Harry's pals Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson, Time Bandits), Lieutenant Willoughby (Jack Allen, The Headless Ghost) and Peter Burroughs (Donald Gray, Strange Experiment) each send him a white feather -- a sign of cowardice. Harry's romantic interest Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez, The Thief of Bagdad) gives him a fourth feather, as she is equally dismayed by his decision. Ashamed of his actions, Harry travels overseas, disguises himself as a Sudanese native and does undercover work for the British military in the hopes of redeeming himself.
Zoltan Korda's robust cinematic adaptation of The Four Feathers (one of several, including a lackluster 2002 version starring Heath Ledger) is a bit tricky to assess properly. On one hand, it's a rousing, exceptionally well-crafted adventure that resembles a Boy's Own Adventure tale in the best possible way. On the other hand, it's a film that demonstrates some less-than-enlightened cultural views that have grown increasingly unpalatable over the decades. I realize that some readers will find this material grating enough to turn them off on the idea of watching the film at all, while others may find the notion that this old-fashioned tale of heroism could offend anyone completely laughable. I suspect most will fall somewhere in-between, finding the film an engaging experience in spite of its considerable missteps.
It's best to approach The Four Feathers as nothing more than a larger-than-life adventure story, because any significant thought about the real-life situations that serve as the setting are likely to damage the film's qualities. To appreciate the film, one must be able to simply view the film as a story of one man's attempt to overcome his own passivity. As a tale of a man attempting to conquer his own fears and prove his worth to the brave men who once doubted him, it works like gangbusters (even if the film unjustly treats his reasonable, dismissive attitudes towards British imperialism as nothing but cowardice). As a demonstration of old-fashioned, big-budget filmmaking, it's similarly successful. Korda's enthusiastic direction serves the tale well, as he brings full-blooded energy to the stiff-upper-lip script.
The film's two best elements are actually just left and right of the center. The first is the material involving Ethne's father, played with delightful pomposity by the great C. Aubrey Smith (Rebecca). Smith's brand of old-fashioned patriotism is gentled skewered by Korda, and the scenes in which the old man recounts his favorite war stories are delightful. Even better is the superb subplot involving Richardson's John Durrance, a man quietly bitter about Harry's (perhaps undeserved) success in his career and in romance (it seems John has unrequited feelings for Ethne). Richardson's performance is a thing of subtle beauty; a good deal richer and more authentic than much of the rest of the film. The Four Feathers is at its absolute best when it concentrates on this material, and Richardson has a few scenes which give a clear indication of why some regard this film as a bona fide classic.
Still, I find it immensely difficult to overcome some of the film's attitudes (though not so much as in the Ledger version, which is even worse in this area due to its half-hearted, unconvincing attempts to pretend it's actually being culturally sensitive). To be sure, many films of the era offered a passive brand of racism in the manner in which they treated foreign cultures or people of color as inferior (intellectually or otherwise), but a movie like The Four Feathers brings such attitudes to the fore as it's actually attempting to deal with a foreign culture in a substantial way. Alongside this (mostly) understated prejudice we have an undeniable enthusiasm for colonialism, as Britain's imperialistic tendencies are treated as nothing short of wildly heroic. Your ability to take this material in stride will largely determine your enjoyment of the film.
The Four Feathers marches onto Blu-ray sporting a respectable 1080p/Full Frame transfer which does what it can with the source material. This film represents Technicolor at its best and worst; alternately ravishing and garish from sequence to sequence. There are moments of color bleeding at times and some scratches and flecks present, along with some very troubling inconsistency and flickering during certain scenes (look at the dinner scene around the 83-minute mark for an example). Grain is a bit thick at times, but never distractingly so. Still, it looks a good deal better than ever before and has been cleaned up considerably from its previous state. Audio is okay, though there's a good bit of hiss present which simply couldn't be eradicated. Additionally, the vigorous orchestral score drops out a bit on occasion and sounds distorted at other times. Nothing is ever too muddled, but this is hardly the sharpest vintage mono track I've heard. Supplements are light but exceptional: a largely technical yet still compelling commentary from historian Charles Drazin (for my money, historians generally do a better job of tackling these tracks than actual cast and crew members do), an interview with Zoltan Korda's son David, the archival promotional featurette "A Day at Denham," a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Sragow.
For the great Richardson performance, the lavish production values and the engaging direction, The Four Feathers is an epic worth seeing. Its fondness for colonialism is a significant flaw, but not a fatal one.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated