Alexander Korda’s production of The Four Feathers, the most popular film version of a 1902 British adventure novel set during the Sudanese Mahdist revolt in the late 19th century, retains on its surface pro-Empire bravado and a streak of colonialist supremacy. But as vintage 1939 English-regiment actioners go, it has the edge on Hollywood’s Gunga Din in authentic, epically framed locations, a lush Technicolor palette, and a lesser racist taint, if it lacks the Cary Grant vehicle’s knockabout comedic episodes and star power. Its secret weapon may be Ralph Richardson, the most affecting performer on display as the hero’s rival and alienated friend; gallant in losing love, and bringing a trouper’s dignity to borderline risible scenes (stumbling after his lost helmet while fighting history’s quickest bout of heatstroke, and haltingly disguising the resulting blindness), his Captain Durrance is a fleshed-out cliché that sounds a few grace notes of actorly music, including Lear-like howls after his unit is wiped out, amid the archetypes and spectacle.
Directed by producer Korda’s brother Zoltán with a facility for fleet battle sequences and generally painless dialogue passages set in the ballrooms and dining halls of aristocratic estates, the film’s drama suffers from its imperially exoticized conflict (“The natives are restless, sir,” one soldier actually reports) and narrative tropes that have since become the stuff of parody. At its core the tale of Harry Faversham (a plummy-voiced, blandly emotive John Clements), a Shelley-reading boy who grows up to join the army as family tradition dictates only to resign as his company ships out for north Africa, The Four Feathers prattles on a bit about cowardice and patriotic duty but puts its stock in the personal element of Harry’s betrayal. Once he has received an envelope containing three white feathers from betrayed comrades (and plucked a fourth from the fan of his disapproving fiancée, played by June Duprez in rosy stiff-upper-lipstick), Harry must perform some redeeming heroism to give back these badges of his timidity, and he chooses the fantastical path of traveling solo to the Sudan, passing as a mute native in turban and beard, where he inevitably saves one brother-in-arms (Richardson) from capture by dragging him across the arid plains to safety, vultures shadowing them from above, and encounters the other two in a dungeon cell where he joins them in leading a climactic “reconquest” of Khartoum. (It’s all on behalf of the exiled Egyptian rulers, set in just opposition to a cackling caliph—played by an Anglo actor in the same brownface Clements dons—who gleefully watches Harry being flogged.)
If this still plays less distastefully than it sounds, it seems partly because Zoltán Korda, a leftist who had sufficient empathy for Africans to make the anti-apartheid film Cry the Beloved Country a dozen years later, shows restraint in villifying the Dervish and “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” warriors; they’re the Other in the way the Native Americans are in the John Ford westerns—whose reverse shots of horse-mounted opposing forces resemble some of the edits here. Along with the necessary mythical touches of a flung-away Union Jack restored to the Khartoum garrison at the finish, the director stages poetic moments on location like birds rising from desert trees at the approach of Mahdist scouts, and R.C. Sherriff’s script jabs satirically at the old-soldier bluster of C. Aubrey Smith as Duprez’s retired-general father, habitually reenacting the Crimean War on a tablecloth with fruit and nuts. With towering studio sets by youngest Korda sibling Vincent, stirring accompaniment by Miklós Rózsa’s martial and romantic themes, and the camels, dunes, and legions of uniformed extras forming the backdrop for Faversham’s herculean labors, The Four Feathers manages to be both old-school escapism and a masochistic sort of epic, with its hero whipped, branded, and rope-towing a vessel of the Empire up the Nile just like a lowly Sudanese.
The soft-edged, beautifully calibrated transfer of the film's three-strip Technicolor images is the crown jewel of this release. Shot by Georges Perinal in the studio and Osmond Borradaile in the Sudan, the visuals are enhanced by shadow (a blind army veteran listening to a victory celebration in his darkened room), the luminous blues of day-for-night scenes such as the Mahdist advance on an outnumbered British company, and the palpable heat of the sun-baked desert tableaus. The monaural soundtrack is clear and serves the Miklós Rózsa score well.
The feature's commentary track is by cinema scholar Charles Drazin, who praises the Korda brothers' adaptation of this "very British tale" as definitive, and interprets the early reels' presentation of Harry Faversham's principled objection to the Empire's "idiotic Egyptian adventure" as a manifestation of socialist director Zoltán's chafing under the conservative instincts of the source material and producer Alex. Drazin also notes the pioneering use of the Sudanese locations and extras (made possible only when the Munich pact with Hitler enabled the production's trip) that replaced the back-projection artificiality common at the time, which along with the stagier melodramatic elements make this epic "an amalgam of realism and hokum."
In a recent video interview, Zoltán's son David Korda describes his father's early life (suffering tuberculosis and trauma fighting in World War I), the family's emigration from Hungary and entry into the film business, and the tensions and closeness among the three brothers (who never taught their wives or children Hungarian, but often whispered or shouted at each other in their native tongue). The 1939 short film A Day at Denham cheerily profiles a day of production at Alex's London Films studio, including footage of The Four Feathers's grand send-off for the regiment at Portsmouth being shot on a soundstage, and the antique sight of camera operators and other technicians dressed in pinstriped suits and ties. A trailer and an appreciative booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Sragow, who finds that the film "celebrates patriotism and military pride, but it also subverts them," round out the package.
A landmark physical production is handsomely remastered and preserved, even if the bloom has gone off the rose of its imperial England.