The essence and flavor of Zoltan Korda's 1939 adaptation of The Four Feathers is arguably the most loyal to A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel. Although it diverges in many ways from a purist's interpretation of the book, the film holds the dubious distinction of being the only adaptation to feature an all British cast. The screenplay by R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis takes up its tale of heroism after the fall of Gen. Gordon in Khartoum. Gen. Flaversham (Allan Jeayes) is a disillusioned relic of the old home guard who worries that his young son, Harry (Clive Baxter) does not share in his familial sense of honor. Since the time he was able to walk, young Harry has been brought up on stories of glory and war. Gen. Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith) in particular relishes in recanting his 'good ol' days during the Crimean conflict. Still, Harry can only see the futility in war. His father's friend, Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley) sympathizes with Harry's dilemma but assures him that when the time comes he will do the right thing to preserve the Flaversham family name.
Unhappy circumstance that adult Harry (now played by John Clements) has not changed his viewpoint with time. It's1895 and the North Surrey Regiment, under Sir Herbert Kitchener is marching to face the forces of the Khalifa (John Laurie - decidedly miscast as an Arab). Forced into the army, Lieutenant Harry Flaversham and his comrades, Capt. John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Lieutenants Peter Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Willoughby (Jack Allen) have all been called into service. But Harry has other plans. Engaged to Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) he is no longer willing to sacrifice his own happiness simply to satisfy his peers.
John, Peter and Willoughby are outraged by Harry's resignation from the army. They each give him a single white feather (a symbol of cowardice) to mark their displeasure. When Ethne does nothing to defend her beloved's reputation Harry demands another feather from her. Although she refuses, he plucks a single white plumb from her fan. Harry next confides in Dr. Sutton that he is indeed a coward, then sets out to Egypt of his own accord to remedy his rash decision to withdraw from the armed forces. But Harry is still determined to be a hero on his own terms. He disguises himself as a mute Sangali, intent on infiltrating the Khalifa's forces and learn their future attack plans against the British.
On route to a clash with the Khalifa, Durrance succumbs to sun stroke that causes permanent blindness. Left for dead in the middle of the desert, Durrance is rescued by Harry who tucks Ethne's white feather into his letter. Forced to retreat back to England, Durrance actively pursues a romance with Ethne. The old Gen. approves. Durrance is a retired hero. Out of pity, Ethne pledges herself in marriage to Durrance even though her heart still belongs to Harry. Inadvertently, the sightless Durrance reveals to Ethne, the old Gen. and Dr. Sutton the contents of the white feather. Harry is still very much alive. No one, least of all Ethne, has the heart to tell Durrance this.
Meanwhile, back in the Sudan Burroughs and Willoughby are captured and taken to the prison of Omdurman - a hellish pit of despair from which there is no return. They quietly discover that the Sangali slave in their midst is none other than Harry Flaversham, come to their aid with a plan of escape. Harry organizes a revolt amongst the prisoners who overpower the guards and seize the Khalifa's arsenal. Their victory spares Kitchener's army from a full blown Khalifa attack.
When news of Harry's courage reaches Durrance he dictates a letter to Dr. Sutton, releasing Ethne of her engagement promise under the false pretext that his plans for therapy abroad to restore his sight will take many years. Sometime later Harry returns to England. He is reunited with Ethne, the Gen., Dr. Sutton and many old friends. But as the old General begins to recant his favorite war story, Harry quietly intervenes to cleverly dispel his embellishments. The mildly irritated Gen. modestly complains that he will never again be able to tell his story with a straight face.
The Four Feathers is lavish entertainment. Its battle sequences are immense and impressive. For some years afterwards they would continue to turn up as 'stock footage' in other British films. Korda's direction is more stilted than North American audiences are used to. His preference for scenes of exposition is that the actors should move about the scenery while the camera remains relatively stationary. Viewed today, these intimate scenes have a strangely embalmed quality, a sort of rigid yet mobile waxworks on display.
The other 'hump' that audiences in this country then and now need to overcome is that The Four Feathers is a film absent of star power. That vital ingredient aside, the film is populated by supremely competent performances. John Clements transformation from apprehensive soldier to Sangali native is sublime perfection. Ralph Richardson manages a minor acting coup, resisting the more obvious urge to rely on audience sympathy for the blindness of his character. Instead, he remains a steadfast beacon of courage under fire - our empathy for his Durrance derived from Richardson's presence, not his character's predicament. C. Aubrey Smith's stoic elegance draws from a rich tapestry of distinctly British memory and fondness for the England that used to be.
In the final analysis, The Four Feathers succeeds as a motion picture because the craftsmanship of its acting overrides George Perinal's rather flat and uninspired cinematography during the lengthy melodramatic dialogue sequences. The same high praise cannot be extolled on Criterion's Blu-ray release. It is, frankly, an insult to collectors who have come to regard the company's integrity and commitment for releasing time honored and art house movies in the best possible condition available. Although Criterion's Blu-ray release does correct the horrendous mis-registration problems that riddled the old MGM DVD from several years ago, it has been derived from a similarly flawed Technicolor dye transfer that contains severe streaks and modeling throughout this presentation. Color bleeding during long shots, as well as obvious 'breathing' of the image around the edges is extremely distracting.
The image is often gritty rather than grainy. (Aside: 3 strip Technicolor was a grain concealing process. As such this image ought to be velvety smooth yet sharp. Regrettably, it is neither). There is an occasional softness, particularly with the footage shot on location. As example, the rock formations that Lieutenant Durrance climbs in his sun stroke delirium are not delineated by the coarseness of their fine texture. Instead they appear as nondescript blobs of grayish brown.
Only in close ups does the image vaguely hint at the vibrancy and attention to detail it ought to have throughout. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate. But the visual are, in a word - disappointing, period! Extras include an informative feature length audio commentary, a featurette on the Korda legacy and London Films, and the film's original theatrical trailer. Given Criterion's usual dedication, this release seems slapdash at best! Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)