Four Feathers, The (1939)

Four Feathers, The (1939)

“There’s no place in England for a coward.”

When young British officer Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his post shortly before his regiment is due to deploy to Sudan, he alienates his three close officer-friends (Ralph Richardson, Jack Allen, and Donald Gray) and his fiancee (June Duprez), whose blustery veteran-father (C. Aubrey Smith) is especially disappointed — but when Faversham receives four white feathers in the mail signaling his cowardice, he quickly decides to go undercover as a mute Arab in the Middle East to save his friends from harm and regain his honor.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Africa
  • Deserts
  • June Duprez Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Soldiers
  • Zoltan Korda Films

The Hungarian-born Korda brothers — including director Zoltan, producer Alexander, and art director Vincent — were the creative force behind this fourth cinematic adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about courage, cowardice, redemption, and British colonial might in Africa. It’s notable as one of the biggest budget Technicolor films made in cinema’s glory year of 1939, and remains an impressive adventure flick in terms of on-location shooting in Sudan, plenty of locals as extras, and fidelity to historical detail. Unfortunately, the storyline itself leaves much to be desired. We’re shown young Faversham (Clive Baxter) being shamed for preferring poetry to war:

… and then soundly rejected by all those closest to him when he makes the brave choice to break with tradition — as he explains here to Duprez:

We’ve discussed it so often — the futility of this idiotic Egyptian adventure; the madness of it all; the ghastly waste of time that we can never have again… I believe in our happiness. I believe in the work to be done here to save an estate that’s near to ruin. To save all those people who’ve been neglected by my family because they preferred glory in India, glory in China, glory in Africa.

Unfortunately, this perspective is glossed over completely once he receives three white feathers of shame and Duprez rejects his logic as well (he eventually adds another feather for her):

So much for wanting to stay local and non-interventionist. I know it’s petty to view a movie like this from strictly a 21st century anti-colonialist perspective, but this lost (potential) narrative thread is frustrating. At any rate, audiences at the time must have been simply thrilled to see so much action taking place in “exotic” places, with plenty of action and fighting — and Faversham’s dedication to saving his three friends is truly impressive.

Meanwhile, Richardson turns in a fine performance as a rival for Duprez’s affections who becomes blinded due to heat stroke.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine location shooting and period detail
  • Beautiful Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious.


One thought on “Four Feathers, The (1939)

  1. First viewing. Not must-see.

    While watching, the word that stayed in my mind was ‘staid’.

    Yes, it’s very well-produced. Apparently it’s also a well-loved film with some feeling it has a beauty that is close to that of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. The year it was released, it was one of the most popular films in England.

    Thing is: its action sequences notwithstanding, it’s largely dull.

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