John Clements is the notional hero, the man who determines to show the world that he is not a coward after resigning his commission (even though it would surely have saved everyone a lot of bother if he had just stuck with it) but the film is stolen by Ralph Richardson, magnificent as an officer struck blind and led to safety by Clements' Harry Faversham. The later scenes when Richardson's Capt. Durrance realizes the truth and its implications are the most poignant and emotionally truthful in the film. C. Aubrey Smith is delightful as the old buffer who relives his battles on the dinner table; to a modern audience, however, the "blackface" casting of John Laurie as the Khalifa strikes a discordant note. But adjusting some expectations for its vintage, this is a triumph of derring-do and far and away the most gripping version of this oft-told story on film. --Mark Walker
The original novel upon which the film is loosely based was penned by A.E.W. Mason and has an actual excuse for being somewhat flimsy: Following the bloody outbreak of World War I, Mason wrote the story as a mere identity cover while doing espionage work for the British government. He was able to scout northern Africa under this guise of an accomplished author gleaning material for the plot of the novel.
The plot of "Four Feathers" is simple yet engrossing: A young man, Harry Faversham (the dashing John Clements), is brought up by his distant father (Allan Jeayes) in a lonely household steeped in Imperial tradition which values courage and honor above happiness or life itself. His natural human instinct of self-preservation is accentuated into possible cowardice by the horrifying war stories told around the dinner table by old veterans. As he matures, Faversham falls deeply in love with Ethne Burroughs (the radiantly beautiful June Dupréz) and decides that he would rather spend his life in his own way than be trapped in the futile repetitiveness that is a soldier family. On the eve of his unit sailing for Africa, he resigns his commission and is branded a coward -- one of the worst labels in Victorian England -- by both his friends and his betrothed. To reclaim his honor and prove both to himself and others that he is not a coward, Faversham sails to darkest Africa.
In Africa, our dauntless hero is embroiled in unfolding military history as General/Lord Horatio Kitchner ventures into the blistering Sudan with 20,000 British personnel against the varied 50,000 warriors of the Khalifa (John Laurie). The film terrifically climaxes in the breathtaking Battle of Omdurman, a historical engagement which a young Winston S. Churchill witnessed and, in one of his most famous literary pieces, fittingly described as a "victory snatched from the jaws of peril!"
When I was very young, my parents would show me this particular film as an example of a forgotten way of life: of lavish ballrooms where uniformed officers and young ladies in ornate Victorian gowns danced the night away on the eve of war amidst whispered pledges of love and marriage. The film taught me that a true gentleman never insults another in public; a leader must be able to command his own self before he can command others; to honor your word even if it may kill you in the process and to be unafraid of whatever befalls you as long as you are true to yourself.
Film Rating: ***** (five) out of ***** (five) stars.
A mesmerizing period piece.