Movies

Four Feathers, The (1939, John Clements, Ralph Richardson)

Four Feathers

A E W Mason’s stirring story of adventure, cowardice and courage The Four Feathers was published in 1902 and was filmed in 1915, 1921, 1929, 1939, 1955, 1978 and 2002: Alexander Korda’s superb 1939 production remains the finest version and is one of the most memorable films of all time. On its release in April 1939, the Daily Express called it “a magnificent achievement.”

Although he comes from a family steeped in military tradition, John Clements believes he has no obligation to continue a military career and resigns his commission on the eve of his regiment’s departure to fight in the Sudan in 1898. Three fellow officers, Ralph Richardson, Donald Gray and Jack Allen, send him white feathers – symbols of cowardice – and he receives a fourth from his fiancée June Duprez. Clements determines to prove himself and goes to Egypt after family doctor Frederick Culley gives him the name of a contact, Henry Oscar. In Egypt, helped by Oscar, who teaches him Arabic, Clements disguises himself as a Sangali tribesman and plays a lone hand in the campaign, suffering torture and hardship before helping Richardson, blinded and suffering from sunstroke in the desert, to safety. He saves the lives of Gray and Allen and plays an important part in the British victory at the Battle of Omdurman, before returning home to a hero’s welcome and the renewed love of Duprez…

The stylish direction of Zoltan Korda, brother of Alexander Korda, was particularly suited to the spectacular action and battle sequences and to the handling of the huge crowds. Filming included extensive location shooting in the Sudan and, complemented by the vibrant exterior Technicolor cinematography of Osmond Borrodaile and Jack Cardiff (the British sequences and interiors were photographed by Georges Perinal), Zoltan Korda created a series of still vivid and stunning images…

Visually, The Four Feathers remains one of the classics of the British cinema and action-location footage from the film was extensively featured in such films as Zarak (1956), Master of the World (1961), 1964’s East of Sudan and, particularly, in Zoltan Korda’s own 1955 remake of The Four Feathers, Storm Over the Nile. Great attention was paid to historical and military accuracy and the screen troops were trained to drill in the way soldiers would have done so in the late 1800s.

Zoltan Korda elicited strong central performances. “The acting is good,” stated Monthly Film Bulletin, “Clements is a convincing Harry, June Duprez is a pleasing Ethna and Aubrey Smith an amusing Victorian blimp… But by far and away the best performance is given by Ralph Richardson.” The Daily Express agreed, noting Richardson’s characterization “stamps him again as one of Britain’s finest actors.”

UK / London Films / 1939

Director: Zoltan Korda
Writers: R C Sherriff, Lajos Biro, Arthur Wimperis, from the novel by A E W Mason

Cast: John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C Aubrey Smith, June Duprez, Allan Jeayes, Jack Allen, Donald Gray