[26 March 2012]
This is arguably the most beautiful film version (the fourth) of A. E. W. Mason’s resilient 1902 adventure tale, set during Britain’s late-19th century African endeavors, wherein a self-professed coward redeems himself in the biggest way. Produced by the legendary Alexander Korda, directed by his brother Zoltán, and designed by brother Victor in the crucial year of 1939, the film is simultaneously war-time propaganda and social critique, both at the service, or even the mercy, of a lavish Technicolor production.
On the eve of active duty in Khartoum, Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission, his argument being that, for him, to be a solider is to be an imposter. Consequently, his three soldier friends send him calling cards attached with white feathers, delicate but damning symbols of cowardice. After plucking a fourth from his equally disapproving fiancé, Harry then sets off on a roundabout quest for redemption: To pass as an outcast Sangali, he gets his skin darkened, his forehead branded and pretends to have had his tongue cut out, all to reach his three friends and return the eponymous feathers. In the process, this disgraced coward saves their lives and the honor of England, to boot.
The perhaps implausible scenario begs an obvious question—Why not just stay with the regiment in the first place?—but the film is far from realistic in that sense, being instead what Michael Sragow, in his fine booklet essay, rightly calls an “odyssey”. This doesn’t mean that it fails to offer real arguments. In a short prologue, we see young Harry (Clive Baxter) on his 15th birthday, subtly badgered by his father for his failure to fulfill his military heritage. Surrounded by old soldiers brought together in hopes of toughening up the boy (who “reads Shelley”, of all things!), the sour-faced lad sits mutely listening to speeches about men from “...fine, old service” families who were either scalped, blown-up or, disgraced, committed suicide. Heroes don’t just survive battles, they die in them.
As an adult, Harry feels himself to be the doomed coward his father predicted. More tellingly, he considers his domestic duties far more important than “idiotic” foreign campaigns in assistance of “West African peasants”, a conscientious objection riddled with prejudices of its own.
In the enlightening interview included as a DVD extra, the director’s son, David, discusses the Korda brothers’ very different political orientations. Alexander, the father figure, was vehemently “pro-Empire”, and so saw The Four Feathers in a sense as a rousing call-to-arms, while the liberal-socialist Zoltán had a more ambivalent or critical attitude toward notions of military and imperialist “destiny”.
This barely embedded duality makes for a film that succeeds in having it many ways. There are blustery Brits with stiff upper lips making reductive reactionary remarks like, “There’s no place in England for a coward,” or a commanding officer’s advice on Faversham’s philosophical malady, “Go lie down in a dark room, m’boy, you’ll be alright in the morning.” Such cynicism coexists with more sympathetic characterizations, like Ralph Richardson’s well-intentioned Captain Durrance, and, inevitably, a spectacular British victory as finale, with the “British square” formation driving off the Arabic and West African “hordes” (nonchalantly dubbed throughout with the dehumanizing Kiplingesque monikers “Dervishes” and the more adorable “Fuzzy-Wuzzies”).
But overall the film’s ambiguous social/political concerns are subordinate to the Korda’s commitment to cinematic spectacle. The film opens with an evocative and associative layering of battles recalling the montage of the ‘20s French Impressionists. The Technicolor is pure plush, with glittery details of reflecting light catching at everything from glassware and uniform brass to a woman’s pearls.
England is a highly color-coordinated world: metal latticework matches cravats, liqueurs complement shirts and dresses. This lush palette reaches a kind of apogee in a recurring tragi-comic speech, delivered by that venerable Grandfather, Clergyman and, here, Old General of cinema, C. Aubrey Smith; in his tale-spinning account of the Battle of Balaclava, tan walnuts represent Russian “guns, Guns, GUNS,” pink sherry “the Thin Red Line”, and a big, thorny pineapple the general himself. Such color-coded irony is strikingly contrasted with the brittle, coal-gray desert, where truly fierce, and fiercely edited, battle scenes end in vast, corpse-ridden vistas hovering with shadowy vultures, scenes eerily prefigured in 15-year-old Harry’s grim candle-lit ascension through his father’s manor, his shadow passing over the portraits of all his brave, dead male ancestors.
As the adult Harry, John Clements is, in the English scenes, suitably ineffectual or innocuous. He conveys a broody, slightly anemic self-absorption, and speaks with an adenoidal accent, like a Beatle with a sinus infection. When he smuggles into Africa, gets himself branded and feigns muteness, he partakes in some serious actorly mannerisms—an actor acting like an acting man—twitching and moaning his way across the harsh desert landscape all the way to his friends’ rescue.
I’ve heard Ralph Richardson’s performance described as overly histrionic, but I find it extremely moving. He does something really nuanced with his eyebrows when the woman he’s lost to Faversham gives him a farewell hug, a tiny tic at once wistful and bitter. Later, the African sun cooks his eyes blind, and it’s heartbreaking to see this once-stoic soldier fumble into kerosene lamps and tent-posts. If acting is all in the eyes, then acting blind is doubly so. How does one make living eyes appear dead? I remember Barbara Walters asking Al Pacino something similar about his performance in Scent Of A Woman (1992), and Pacino explaining that part of the trick was focusing each eye on the peripheries only, never straight ahead. I don’t know if Richardson utilized something similar, but he certainly does a fine job rendering his eyes, as his Durrance says, “stone dead”.
Special features include high-definition restoration, audio commentary by film historian Charles Drazin, the essay by film critic Michael Sragow, and two short films: a 1939 documentary about Korda’s London Studios (in which movie extras are called “crowd artists”); and a fascinating interview with the director’s son David, who is both articulate and entertaining, at one point describing his own entry into the film business—ransacking battle scenes from his father’s Four Feathers for a B minus movie.