The Four Feathers (1939)

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  • directed by Zoltan Korda
  • starring John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez
  • A disgraced officer risks his life to save his childhood friends in battle.

“Why worry? Be a coward and be happy.”

Not the first or last adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s landmark novel, but 1939’s The Four Feathers was undoubtedly the best and biggest of the bunch and it was a major achievement for director Zoltan Korda and his two brothers–Alexander produced, and Vincent designed.

The story follows Harry Faversham as he bucks the family trend of serving with honor, resigning his post the night before deployment to Sudan. Disgraced by his elders, his lady, and his partners who have all hung on to the embedded value of serving with honor, no questions asked, Harry embarks on a secret mission to the area where he takes on the disguise of a mute local to assist his country by any means possible. The performances in the film were effective and nuanced, including John Clements as the conflicted soldier and mute Sangali native, Ralph Richardson who toed the line between confident and broken, and the great C. Aubrey Smith, who turned General Burroughs into a very familiar type of character, the elder in your life who’s the only one in the room still tickled by the same story over and over.

On its surface, Korda’s film is a superb and gorgeous-looking war adventure film that depicts the glory and richness of the British military tradition. And then you start poking around the story and notice that the film rarely if ever casts a positive light on one side or the other, which is pretty remarkable for a very much British release. As a viewer you can choose to side with General Burroughs days-of-yore philosophies and come out of the film with that belief intact, but you’d end up wondering why Harry is able to skirt the status quo yet reach greater heights than he would have by just falling in line. If you tend to side with the natives in films that depict the violence that arises from imperialistic pursuits, however, then you could appreciate that Korda’s past service as a cavalry officer afforded him something of a sympathetic view toward indigenous peoples. The film stays impartial enough and thoroughly captures all sides of the environment in a way that it all can be perceived as coming from one of a few points of view dependant mainly on what yours is.

If my personal film history had occurred chronologically, I would have noticed a lot of Korda’s technique in the future works of Stanley Kubrick. Many times I was struck by the symmetry and strength that Korda fixed upon in even the most simple of scenes. Every frame it seemed was filled with an interesting and thoughtful visual choice, whether it be the color palette, the decision to film nighttime scenes in either natural darkness or candlelight, the traditional British or chaotic Khalifa troop formations, or the landscape, which Korda brings to life and nearly makes tangible its cruel sun and unforgiving terrain. During Durrance’s bout of sunstroke while climbing a hill, we feel trapped and terrified right along with him. Every time his balance or footing was compromised during climbing, Korda’a puts us right on the edge with him.

Filmed in vivid Technicolor throughout the harsh and monochromatic deserts of Sudan, anything of color exploded on screen—uniforms, flags, the abundance of fire, the white sails that glided with grace in front of the mountains. And then there were the battles–the stunning nighttime raid that resulted in the reunion of Faversham and Durrance, and the completely overwhelming Battle of Omdurman at the end. Vincent Korda’s sets added to the utter chaos that Zoltan captured, using thousands of extras, horses, camels, and a constant barrage of gunshots, anguished screams, and explosions to create a loud, bloody, and brutal scene.

Looming over the entire film and perhaps the only definitive piece of commentary by Korda, and Mason for that matter, is showing the British military, so rich in history and obsessed with its past, coming to a crossroads during a new age. It used to be that those born and pressured into service must rise to all occasion no matter the moral implications. You weren’t supposed to step outside of an order and question its validity, as Harry does. What you’re supposed to do, like his partners and elders have done, is immediately conjure those senses of national pride, honor, and heritage, and use them, if you must, to wash over any guilt experienced from building and maintaining an empire. You get to see a lot of cracks in the morality of the British by having Harry adopt the persona of a Sangali native and have to deal with the cruelty himself.

I saw Harry’s journey to reclaiming hero status as bringing attention to the fact that the old system—our fathers and their days of glory, their battle recreations, and our never-ending missions year after year—is the one and only way of thinking no longer. Durrance followed the rulebook line by line and ended up near-vulture food in two separate instances, and then alone, blind, and wondering where he went wrong afterwards. If you ever heard him telling a group of kids his story in the future, you’ll be smart enough to question that there may not have been any glory in those days.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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