Zoltan Korda’s 1939 adaptation of The Four Feathers – based on A. E. W. Mason’s novel – stands as one of the benchmarks of classic British film making. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, as well as a nomination for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Four Feathers centers around the British recapture of Sudan and Khartoum at the tail end of the nineteenth century. It is in this setting that we are introduced to Harry Faversham (played by John Clements), a British officer from a military lineage, but with objections to the war and an impending marriage on the horizon to the daughter of a retired general. Once Faversham’s father has passed away, he feels that his obligation to keep up a familial military facade has ended, and decides to tender his resignation before his company is sent overseas to join the occupation efforts. His decision to leave is not well received, and by almost everyone: his commanding officer, his regimen, his fiance’s father, and even his fiance herself.
The title is a reference to how some of the other characters show their indignation at his decision. Three of his fellow officers each send him a note with a white feather, as a symbol for his cowardice. Their rebuff wounds Faversham deeply, and he realizes that there may be some truth to their judgement, so in a moment of self-rebuke he pulls a fourth feather for himself. After some soul-searching, he hatches a rather daring plan to both infiltrate the enemy’s ranks and help the war effort, but also to prove to his comrades his true bravery and dedication. In effect, he hopes to make them take back their feathers of cowardice and once again earn their respect. But it’s the tension he wrestles with between his personal convictions and the overall duty to his country and comrades that keep it from being a simple case of flip-flopping.
The movie balances his story with that of another officer, Captain John Durrance (played by Ralph Richardson) who always seems to be a step behind Harry in life, even though he constantly strives to do the right thing. He had previously also vied for the affection of Harry’s fiance, and naturally feels some resentment at not being chosen. But his duty to the military and to his country remains steadfast, even as he is wounded in battle and left blind. It’s the contrast of these two characters and ideals – tradition versus ingenuity – and how their fates intertwine that pushes the story along.
Korda’s production delivers the tale in lavish style. A large-scale Technicolor picture, The Four Feathers was a monumental shoot in its day that extended from its London studio lot to location footage in Africa. Employing its own veritable army of extras, the battle sequences are every bit as big in scope as the production merits. Although the running time is kept brisk, at just under two hours, the film still feels epic in scope. It is the British equivalent of the Hollywood epic, and matches the effort in both substance and style. Korda’s deft direction is aided by lush cinematography and production design. And although the acting can feel overly formal in delivery at times, it’s a reflection of the style of the times. Some excellent performances by Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith – as the retired general, and father of Faversham’s fiance – enliven the film, and the engaging story help to secure classic status for The Four Feathers.
Film restoration efforts are tricky business, and I hate to judge harshly a craft of which I have only a cursory understanding. However, Criterion have provided us numerous prior examples of excellent classic film restorations, including many from a similar time period, and so my comments are in light of both the present film and these other reference points.
The Four Feathers starts off on a shaky foot, with an opening credit sequence that reveals a surprising amount of debris left on the print. Granted, I’m sure it’s vastly improved over the original sources used, but we’re a bit spoiled with pristine Criterion transfers, and this one doesn’t exactly raise the bar. Overall color is rich and engaging, and the Technicolor presentation is handsomely displayed, even with the characteristic overly red tint in many sections. However, there are some color separation anomalies that peak through, as well as overall sections that just feel sharper than others. But again, for a seventy-plus year old film, we should hardly be expecting a trouble-free print. In the end, this is a good encoding but not one of Criterion’s best (it’s not Red Shoes good). Perhaps some of its own source issues keep it from coming across as strong.
The audio yields similar results. The English PCM Mono track isn’t weak, but certain sections don’t seem to be optimally remastered. For the most part dialogue remains balanced, but there are moments where Miklos Rozsa’s excellent score comes across as weak and struggling within the source. Fortunately there are otherwise no anomalies to report with the audio, making for a solid if perhaps unremarkable audio experience.
The bonus material leads with a commentary track by film historian Charles Drazin. Although full of information regarding the film’s production, history of the source novel and its many film adaptations, and the relationship of the Korda brothers, Drazin’s dry recitation of his written script gives the track a heavily mechanical feel. More interesting is an interview with Zoltan Korda’s son David (HD, 23:12), who provides a glimpse -and a rather candid one at that – into the movie making life of his family. A Day at Denham (HD, 10:20) is an old promotional reel that provides a tour of the London Films studio lot, and also includes some behind-the-scenes shots of The Four Fouthers during filming. Finally, there is the trailer for the film (HD, 2:51).
Also included in the packaging is a lengthy and informative essay on the film by Michael Sragow. This lone item yields a more sparse foldover insert than the more lavish booklets that some past Criterion releases have received.
The Four Feathers rather deftly balances a large-scale “Hollywood” (although it isn’t) war film with a story that actually works on more than one level. Performances are solid, if a bit wooden, but buoyed by some truly wonderful cinematography. The A/V presentation here still feels a little undercooked by Criterion standards, but still easily the best the film has looked.