Yesterday I finally saw the 1939 version ofThe Four Feathers. It’s a brilliant film, as well as a remarkable comment on the British military tradition in the aftermath of one world war and on the eve of a second.
The basic plot of Masson’s story, lightly adapted here by World War One veteran R. C. Sherriff, is simple: Army officer Harry Faversham resigns his commission on the eve of the conquest of the Sudan. He receives white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, from his three closest friends in his the regiment, as well as from his fiancée, Esme Burroughs. Setting out to redeem himself in their eyes, Harry disguises himself as a mute Arab and accompanies the army. Rescuing each of his friends from certain death, he returns to England with his honor restored and ready to marry his repentant fiancée.
There’s far more than this to the 1939 film, directed by Zoltan Korda and produced by his brother Alex. In their hands, Sherriff and the Kordas remake a Boy’s Own tale of triumphant adventure into a film that never loses sight of the arbitrary and incomprehensible nature of war.
In Korda’s movie, Harry’s resignation is not a matter of principle. Though he calls it Britain’s “idiotic Egyptian adventure” to his fiancée, and condemns it as a conceited escapade, his true reason is the fear of proving to be the coward that his father believed him to be.
Young Harry is raised on a steady diet of war stories. The most memorable is the comically glorious version of the battle of Balaclava from his fiancée’s father, General Burroughs, (with Russians as nuts, an apple for the commander-in-chief, a “thin red line” of wine for the English infantry, and a mighty pineapple for Burroughs himself), but the most important is that of Wilmington, whose fear in the face of battle makes him an outcast and isn’t even redeemed by his suicide. Brutalized by his father’s blunt statement that “there’s no place in England for a coward,” ten years later Harry is still living his father’s doubts about his courage and assuming that his nerves render him a uniquely damaged individual.
The second half of the film, then, is a conventional military adventure that disproves Harry’s fears. It culminates in a dramatic escape from prison in Khartoum just as the British army comes crashing into the city. Harry proves himself a hero rather than a coward, and redeems his honor in the eyes of all three of his friends. But, in the film’s final moments, Sherriff’s script insists that true heroism not allow the older generation’s mock heroics to tell the next generation that war is a simple. To redeem Esme’s feather, he interrupts General Burroughs’s to reveal that the charge he led at Balaclava was an accident, begun when his horse bolted, rather than the heroic gesture in Burroughs’ story.
As much as The Four Feathers is a love letter to the grand British military tradition, and it is Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of the spit-and-polish British officer John Durrance which steals the show, it is also a movie that refuses to let that military tradition define it. Harry spends the first half of the movie chafing under the yoke of the war stories of his father’s generation, and spends the second half of the film proving that those stories don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes an unarmed man can do what a whole army cannot, and sometimes a charge starts with a horse rather than its rider.