Far too many film versions of the The Four Feathers
have been made over the years, which is especially surprising considering that this 1939 Korda brothers production is surely definitive. The film simultaneously celebrates and pokes fun at British imperialism, showing the kind of dogged stiff-upper-lippery that forged an Empire, but also the blinkered attitudes and crass snobbishness of the ruling classes (and those accents--did people ever really talk like that?). Whatever political subtext may or may not be read into it, though, the film is best celebrated for its magnificent vistas: partially made on location in the Sudan, as well as at the famous Denham Studios, this is British cinema from the days when it thought to rival Hollywood for sheer spectacle. Vincent Korda's production design and the glorious early color cinematography are helped greatly by fellow Hungarian émigré Miklos Rozsa's epic score.
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