The Four Feathers (1939)

John Clements as Harry Faversham in The Four Feathers

John Clements Starred and Feathered

One of my usual gripes about modern cinema is that even when they have a good storyline they end us wasting it in favour of over the top action followed by more over the top action. Yet go back to a time, the 1930's, when technology was simple and you get movies which combined a good story with good action and on top of that good acting. One such movie is Zoltan Korda's "The Four Feathers" which is beautiful in its cinematography, epic in its action, brilliantly acted yet the main focus of all of this is the storyline which is rightly so.

With a long history of Faversham's going off to battle for the country, Harry Faversham (John Clements) follows suit despite deep down not believing it to be the right thing. But following his father's death he takes it as an opportunity to be true to himself and resigns his commission. Something which his ex army friends and fiancee Ethne (June Duprez) don't approve off as he is sent a box of feathers brandishing him a coward, especially as his regiment are about to head off to battle in Egypt. In order to prove he isn't a coward, Harry heads off to Egypt and poses as a mute native to return those feathers one by one and rescue his former colleagues when the local rebels attack.

Ralph Richardson as Captain John Durrance in The Four Feathers

One of the beauties of this version of "The Four Feathers", more recently remade in 2002 and starring Heath Ledger, is that it takes a simple storyline and makes it feel epic. And I am not being unjust in saying that the storyline is simple because it's about one man proving he's no coward by going on a mission to where his former army buddies are under attack. There is nothing more to it than that, but rather than just delivering the action side of things, it delivers the emotion and reasoning as it explains why Harry resigned from the forces and then put his life on the line to infiltrate the foreign armies to prove he wasn't a coward.

And whilst we get all this emotion side of the story it has subtle storyline embellishments such as his relationship with Ethne and his former colleague John. It makes it feel more than it truly is without ever distracting from what is the main focus, that of Harry proving he is not a coward.

Whilst the storyline takes precedence over everything there is no denying that Korda gives "The Four Feathers" an epic feel. There are some beautiful camera shots from the big shots of the Egyptian desert and Nile through to something almost insignificant such as the shadow of a vulture circling above. It's this attention to detail which makes it all the more marvellous to watch and is an element missing from more modern movies.

But "The Four Feathers" is also an action movie as we watch the British troops battle Egyptian rebels and Harry disguised as an Arab waging his own personal battles. And again Korda doesn't fail to make these action scenes feel big and epic. The melee of gunfire as the Egyptians come charging in on Camels, through to the up-close fights everything has that wow factor. And I would say that watching "The Four Feathers" now that wow factor is even bigger because all of this was shot without technology yet rivals any modern action for intensity and authenticity.

Whilst the main character, the hero of "The Four Feathers" is Harry Faversham played solidly by John Clements, it is Ralph Richardson as Captain John Durrance who really steals the show. Following the scene where he becomes blinded by the sun, his attempts to carry on whilst hiding his emotion and disability is stunning, stumbling around as he becomes delusional. But it is also in the final scenes when realisation hits him as to what happened to him when he was rescued which equally wows with a subtle, restrained level of emotion. And giving "The Four Feathers" an almost touch of comedy is C. Aubrey Smith who regales young men with his tales of battle around the dinner table.

Watching "The Four Feathers" two things do make them self very evident and one of those is the level of patriotism on show in the movies. It's full of that sense of British stiff upper lip and proud ness of the British Empire. But also being a movie which is now 70 years old also falls foul of modern standards when it comes to racism with the rebels being depicted as sword waving lunatics and referred to a Fuzzy Wuzzies. But whilst it would never pass for acceptable these days, "The Four Feathers" is a period piece and it adds to the authenticity whether you feel its right or wrong.

What this all boils down to is that "The Four Feathers" is a lesson in how to make a good movie. It delivers action, beautiful scenic shots and features some impressive performances giving it an epic feel yet all the time its focus is on telling a story. And whilst the story is relatively simple it makes it feels so much more without ever feeling convoluted.