The Four Feathers (1939)

Dir. Zoltan Korda. Starring Ralph Richardson, John Clements, C. Aubrey Smith

The shot above is the movie’s thesis. A storm of ferocious, enthusiastic cavalry troops charging en masse but not in formation, meets a disciplined enemy firing with superior weaponry from their thin red line. (Fear not: the British square was used earlier in the movie.) This is the difference between the British, the civilizers, the benevolent but firm parents, and their black and brown assailants, the hordes who can overwhelm the British with their superior numbers but will never know the value of fair play. The battle ends as a British victory, won on the battlefield by the force of arms and the coolness under fire and, as it turns out, a surprising assist from some prisoners in Omdurman who capture the armory. After a decade of disorder, the British put things right, and along the way a young man named Harry Faversham (Clements) learns some valuable lessons about self-sacrifice and courage. The comparisons to Gone with the Wind are inevitable, and watching the film almost eighty years on can be an equally queasy experience. To appear like a member of the disgraced Sangali tribe, Faversham must dye his skin a dark brown and wear a beard, but apparently he must also keep his head practically on his right shoulder and grunt and roll his eyes like he escaped from the asylum in Amadeus. One wonders if the Arab who cut down Chinese Gordon looked that silly as he did it.

The Four Feathers was made with a clear eye towards the bodies which would be needed to feed Nazi bullets on the Western Front as they had fed Imperial bullets two decades earlier. This is a Technicolor spectacular, and some of the best scenes of the film are found in the broad sweep of the desert and its withering heat. (In one solid scene, Harry dives into pit after pit, like sunken zits on the face of the Nubian Desert, only to find that the water has dried up in each. It ain’t the Nefud Desert sequence from Lawrence of Arabia, but hey, the whole movie falls short of that.) After marrying Ethne (June Duprez), Harry resigns his commission and returns to her with plans to renovate the old manor and give attention to his community: in other words, he intends to do good work at home while his compeers in the army do whatever the equivalent of that is in Sudan. It seems like a thoroughly reasonable plan, and the movie would be significantly more interesting if this were about a conscientious objector whose friends and family shun him for a perceived cowardice he doesn’t actually feel. But this is a propaganda movie, and inevitably it comes out that his fine words to Ethne were a cover for the fear that keeps him from joining Kitchener and his friends, a fear that leads to him giving up on the family’s military legacy. In this scene, it becomes crystal clear that there is only one way to view Harry—a coward, and one who deserves the feathers he gets from his friends and takes from his wife—and it makes the rest of the movie a drag in the way that any text which vocally denies alternative interpretations becomes dull. It doesn’t get any better when Harry refuses to even speak to a friend whose life he’s saved once and is in the process of saving again…is the act really so important? The movie is certainly quite taken with this active method of proving himself, but the genre itself removes any possibility that Harry can stray from his given course. In one scene which is surprisingly effective, Harry takes a brand on his forehead as the first step to “becoming” a Sangali. Just as he’ll never be able to remove the brand, the movie has no alternate path to tread. Harry must become a productive hero because the moviegoing cowards like him must feel that they too will be able to stand up to the fiery onslaught of whatever barbarians loom on the horizon.

While watching The Four Feathers I couldn’t help but think of 49th Parallel, which is the gold standard for wartime propaganda films which don’t make us cringe after the war. What stands out about 49th Parallel  in the present is its relentless argument that the Nazis are wrong and the decent people of Canada are right, haughty Quebecois or humble Hutterite. If one doesn’t care for the example with Olivier, then the movie lets you see what’s wrong with Nazi ideology through Walbrook, and if you’re really having trouble there’s Howard, and so on. If Harry lacks moral fiber in this movie, it’s not obvious to us in the present. Perhaps in 1939 it was not obvious that the Brits were actually the baddies in Africa as it is now, but then again in 1941, when 49th Parallel was released, there was debate in this country about whether or not the Nazis were evil enough to require our intervention. History has vindicated one film and makes the other risible.

There is a long stretch in The Four Feathers which basically leaves Harry and his moral dilemma, such as it is, behind. When it does it focuses on John Durrance (Richardson), who lost a battle for Ethne’s hand to Harry and who goes gladly to the Sudan while Harry shirks. John is more interesting than Harry, not least because Richardson plays his role with less detachment than Clements does. For a man who is struggling with a crisis of confidence with generational implications (for the Favershams have been officers for more than a century) and a disapproving wife he has separated from, Harry seems terribly cool too often. He may know he’s a coward, but his aggravation is too mild to make us feel much of his turmoil. John stiffens up in moments of crisis and then manages to return to them with a performative grace. When he finds out from Ethne’s brother, Peter (Donald Gray) that Harry’s offer is the one that was accepted, John is the stoic gentleman in his first moments of hurt, confesses a smidgen of his hurt to Peter privately, and then is witty and cordial with Ethne later on. He’s on her dance card for a polka—”rather like saying goodbye in Morse Code”—and tells her that he made a list of reasons why she might have chosen Harry rather than him. But the last was the most important: “She loves the other man.” It’s a moment which is sad and funny all at once, which of course makes it quintessentially Richardson. Not every scene of his is wonderful. Even he can’t save the scene where the sun makes him go vaguely crazy. (I think he’s going crazy? I mean, I get that he’s super warm, but he’s staggering around like someone trying to show us “two gins too many” as opposed to “verge of death.”) But Richardson is particularly fine once he’s realized that he’s gone blind. It’s Ethne all over again. He is crushed but cannot show it; he rides his horse, all but hides his blindness from Peter, tries to rally his men against a superior force. Richardson gamely runs into lamps and canvas, but more than that wears two different faces. In front of others, he uses his genuine fatigue as a way to mask his condition. Alone, his hopelessness is all too clear, lit by the matches he cannot see or the lamp that he’s just banged his entire head against. In a movie that emphasizes the despair of its characters, or at least tries to, Ralph Richardson is the most valuable tool The Four Feathers has to accomplish it, and his John Durrance is far and away the most sympathetic individual.

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