November 30, 2017
The Four Feathers – US, 1939
Alexander Korda’s The Four Feathers is a great film. In fact, for about 100 minutes, I had no qualms with anything in it. A few highlights come to mind: an impeccably directed scene in which two characters wander desperately through the barren desert, large crowd scenes that must have been a logistical feat to capture on camera, impressive scenes of military confrontations in the desert, and the thoroughly moving performances of the three leads. I was so enthralled that I didn’t mind several casting decisions that would not pass muster these days, and not even a scene in which a character unnecessarily repeats key details from an earlier scene, something I would normally get frustrated by, was able to spoil my enjoyment. The problem is that the film is 115 minutes, and those other fifteen minutes made my eyes roll and a few light sighs to be heaved.
If The Four Feathers is to be believed, retired military men have such disrespect for cowardly soldiers that they sit around a table and reflect upon how deserved they were of the death that struck them. About one particular soldier who was shot after he fumbled his weapon, one of these admirable fellows remarks, “Best thing that could have happened to him.” That the conversation is happening at the home of the wealthy Faversham family makes the sentiments expressed even worse. These are rich men disparaging fallen soldiers. They sum it up this way: “There’s no place in England for a coward.” Yikes.
Sitting at the table during this eye-opening conversation is young Harry Faversham, and it is possible that the severity of the remarks is in part due to his presence. His father seems to think that Harry, a poetry reader with the backbone of an amoeba, is an embarrassment and that graphic descriptions of gutless deaths will turn him into a full-blooded soldier willing to charge into battle at a moment’s notice. It’s an odd set-up to say the least, and I just didn’t buy it. However, it appears to have its desired effect. Ten years later, there’s Harry (John Clements), an enlistee about to be sent to Sudan to help retake Khartoum and avenge the death of General Gordon.
Harry does not go of course, and Korda superbly sets this up. As the news that Harry’s regiment is being sent to Sudan is announced, Korda focuses his camera on Clements’s face. Clements’s stare is ice cold, the only hint of emotion being a slight, but noticeable twitch. Later we hear Harry’s fellow soldiers speaking about him, and their low opinion is obvious. In that scene, Korda focuses on the face of John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), and the audience is invited to compare the two: the first, inwardly quaking and outwardly hesitant; the other stoic and determined. Which one would you want riding alongside you into battle?
Harry’s decision not to go – his right under military rules - earns him the wrath of his commanding officer and a particularly stinging delivery: three cards, each bearing the name of one of his fellow soldiers, and three feathers, signifying their collective judgment of Harry. The fourth one comes from Harry’s fiancée, Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), who tells him that although she agrees with his decision in spirit, they were born into a military tradition and must submit to it. To do otherwise is to be unworthy of the sacrifice other people are making. Her sharp rapprochement is the beginning of the end of their short engagement, yet it stirs something in Harry, something akin to shame. He eventually meets up with his former squadron on the sands of Sudan, but not in the way anyone would expect.
There are memorable moments aplenty in this part of the film. The conversation between Harry and Ethne is masterfully written and fully conveys Ethne’s inner conflict. It also helps explain the gung-ho nature of the British citizens we see cheering and throwing confetti at the soldiers as they march past them in parade just prior to being shipped out. The parade itself is particularly revealing. Only a few of the soldiers’ wives reveal deep reservations, and they do so with their faces, not with their words. The men are all practically beside themselves with joy. Harry’s replacement is congratulated whole heartedly for having gotten the privilege of going off to war. There is even a moment in which a former general fights back tears as he sees the soldier pass by, marching into the great unknown. It’s all very moving, and it almost makes up for the awkwardness in some of the scenes that precede it. (Earlier a soldier actually says, “Oysters in June? Don’t be a fool.”)
What fascinated me most about the film was the exact purpose of Harry’s journey. While many films have had characters who had a change of heart about war, it was usually on a grand scale. War was either entirely wrong or entirely justified; people rejoined because they had seen the light and were now teeming with patriotism, or they deserted, having grown disillusioned by the inhumanity of it all. Characters under such circumstances often eventually display unheralded heroism and may actually help turn the tide of the war or affect public sentiment of it. Harry’s actions, however, are more personal than nationalistic, and any help he is to Britain’s ultimately victorious forces seems purely incidental.
Could we quibble about how fast Harry goes from scared to brave? Sure. Could we complain about the limited character development of Ethne and her apparent decision to marry someone she doesn’t love? Again, we could. And would we be forgiven for throwing a shoe at our television set during the film’s final moments, when instead of giving viewers the heartfelt reunion they’ve been waiting for, they get yet another half-baked attempt at comedy and a complete u-turn in tone? Alas, we would. Yet neither these complains nor the awkwardness of the opening scenes do anything to dampen the enthusiasm I have for the film. It is dramatic, visually stunning, and sweet. It is powerful without being excessively graphic and contains characters that will stay with you long after the final credits have stopped. The film is further evidence that 1939 was indeed one of the greatest years for Hollywood. (on DVD and Blu-ray from MGM and the Criterion Collection)