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The Four Feathers (1939, John Clements, Clive Baxter)

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A E W Mason’s stirring story of adventure, cowardice and courage was published in 1902 and was filmed in 1915, 1921, 1929, 1939, 1955 and 1978: 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.’

production details
UK / London Films / 129 minutes / 1939

Director: Zoltan Korda
Writers: R.C. Sherriff, A.E.W. Mason,

cast
John Clements as Harry Faversham
Clive Baxter as Young Harry Faversham
Hal Walters as Joe
Ralph Richardson as John Durrance
June Duprez as Ethne Burroughs
Jack Allen as Lieutenant Willoughby
Donald Gray as Peter Burroughs
C. Aubrey Smith as General Burroughs
Robert Rendel as Colonel
Derek Elphinstone as Lieutenant Parker
Norman Pierce as Sergeant Brown
Peter Cozens as Man
Christopher Cozier as
Jack Lambert as (uncredited)
Frederick Culley as Dr Sutton
Archibald Batty as Adjutant
Amid Taftazani as Karaga Pasha
Allan Jeayes as General Faversham
Henry Oscar as Dr. Harraz
Alexander Knox as Bit Part
Leslie Phillips as Boy Doffing Cap at Parade
Hay Petrie as Mahdi Interpreter
John Laurie as Khalifa

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