DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Four Feathers, Blu-ray (1939/2011)

A thrilling desert epic about British colonialism in Africa late in the 19th century.

Published on November 4, 2011

The Four Feathers, Blu-ray (1939/2011)

Starring: John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith
Director: Zoltan Korda
Studio: Korda Films/Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 583 [10/11/11]
Music: Miklos Rosza
Video: 1.37:1 1080p HD color
Audio: English PCM mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Commentary track by film historian Charles Drazin; New interview with David Korda, son of Zoltan Korda; “A Day at Denham” – short 1939 film on the work on the film at Korda’s studio outside London; Theatrical trailer; Printed notes with essay by film critic Michael Sragow
Length: 115 minutes
Rating: ****

This is considered to be the best of many treatments of a 1902 adventure novel about the exploits of the British Empire in Africa near the end of the 19th century. It’s a sort of Lawrence of Arabia of the earlier period, shot in glorious Technicolor with thousands of extras for the big battle scenes (which were later stretched to Cinemascope to fit in another entirely different story in the ‘50s), but not widescreen. It’s still a great desert spectacular.

The central young officer, Faversham (John Clements) is a different sort of a hero—not knowing any Arabic, and trying to aid his fellow officers in their service at Khartoum as a civilian masquerading as a mute tribesman. He has been accused of being a coward by his fellow officers because he resigned his post just before they deployed to Khartoum, and he agrees with them.

Upon arriving in the Sudan he bravely has a doctor brand his forehead to pass as a member of a conquered tribe who all were so branded (and also had their tongues cut out).  After many terrible adventures he ends up in a prison in Khartoum as General Kitchener’s army prepares to re-take the colonial capital which the Arabs have held for a decade, and he aids the revolt of the prisoners synced to the attack on the city. On the way he saves the life of his friend played by Ralph Richardson, who has been struck blind.

The whole thing ties in with Kipling and the ethos of the period (Zoltan Korda’s biggest film was probably his 1942 Jungle Book.) It’s altogether a fine portrait of the colonial military situation of the time, with one section titled on the screen “The Battle Against the Dervishes and Fuzzy-Wuzzys.”  Veddy, veddy British, mind you. A major element is the repeated dinner table reenactments by the hero’s father, General Faversham, of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. The general feels all the soldiers are too soft nowadays and of course contributes to the awful feelings of young Faversham. At the end the father gets his comeuppance.  The adventure part of the film is well-balanced by the psychological depth of some of the plot, though some aspects will seem dated. The transfer to Blu-ray is excellent. I understand previous DVDs of this film were not very good, and its cinematographers were the best, having worked for Jean Cocteau and Rene Clair, and later worked on The Third Man and The African Queen.  One can only imagine the rigors the filmmakers must have gone thru shooting with the gigantic, heavy Technicolor cameras in the oppressive heat and sand storms of the desert. The music score is from the countryman of the Korda brothers, Miklos Rosza, (conducted by Muir Mathieson) and he obviously strove to eliminate Hungarian music elements from his rather standard exotic score for an African-based movie. The extras, as usual with Criterion, are fascinating.

—John Sunier




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