The Four Feathers is a 1939 British Technicolor adventure film directed by Zoltan Korda, starring John Clements, Ralph Richardson, June Duprez, and C. Aubrey Smith. Set during the reign of Queen Victoria, it tells the story of a man accused of cowardice.
The film is widely regarded as the best adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel of the same name.
In 1895, the Royal North Surrey Regiment is called to active service to join the army of Sir Herbert Kitchener in the Mahdist War against the forces of the Khalifa (John Laurie). Forced into an army career by family tradition and fearful he might prove a coward in battle, Lieutenant Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission on the eve of its departure. As a result, his three friends and fellow officers, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) and Lieutenants Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Willoughby (Jack Allen), show their contempt for his action by each sending him a white feather attached to a calling card. When his fiancée, Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), says nothing in his defence, he bitterly demands a fourth from her. She refuses, but he plucks one from her fan.
Harry confides in an old mentor and former surgeon in his father’s regiment, Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley), that he now realises he did act out of cowardice and must attempt to redeem himself. He departs for Egypt. There, he disguises himself as a despised mute Sangali native, with the help of Dr. Harraz (Henry Oscar), to hide his lack of knowledge of the local languages.
During the army’s advance, Durrance is ordered to take his company into the desert to lure the Khalifa’s army away from the Nile so that Kitchener’s army can sail past. Durrance is blinded by sunstroke, and the company is overrun. He is left for dead on the battlefield, while Burroughs and Willoughby are captured. However, the disguised Faversham takes the delirious Durrance across the desert and down the Nile to the vicinity of a British fort. As he is putting something into Durrance’s wallet, Faversham is spotted and mistaken for a robber. He is placed in a convict gang, but escapes.
Six months later, the blind Durrance has returned to England. Out of pity, Ethne agrees to marry him. At dinner with Ethne, her father, and Dr. Sutton, as Durrance is relating the tale of his miraculous rescue, he pulls out a keepsake letter from Ethne, the only thing he had in his wallet during the “robbery”. A white feather and his card drop out, revealing to the others that his rescuer was Harry Faversham. Nobody has the heart to tell him.
Burroughs and Willoughby are thrown into a dungeon in Omdurman with other enemies of the Khalifa. Still playing the addled Sangali, Faversham surreptitiously gives them hope of escape and passes them a file, but arouses the suspicions of the guards. He is flogged and imprisoned with the others. He reveals his identity to his friends and organises an escape during Kitchener’s attack. Faversham leads the other prisoners in overpowering their guards and seizing the Khalifa’s arsenal, where they hold out until the arrival of Kitchener’s forces.
Durrance learns of Faversham’s deeds from a newspaper account and realises it was Harry who saved him. He dictates a letter to Ethne, releasing her from their engagement on the false pretext of going to Germany for a prolonged course of treatment to restore his eyesight. Some time later, Harry attends a dinner with his friends and Ethne, where General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith), Ethne’s father, acknowledges that Harry has forced all of them to take back their feathers – all except Ethne. Faversham playfully makes her take back her white feather by the courageous act of interrupting the General in the midst of his favourite war story about the Battle of Balaclava to correct his embellishments; the irritated Burroughs complains that he will never be able to tell that story again.
- John Clements as Harry Faversham.
- Ralph Richardson as Captain John Durrance.
- C. Aubrey Smith as General Burroughs.
- June Duprez as Ethne Burroughs.
- Allan Jeayes as General Faversham.
- Jack Allen as Lieutenant Thomas Willoughby.
- Donald Gray as Peter Burroughs.
- Frederick Culley as Dr Sutton.
- Clive Baxter as Young Harry Faversham.
- Robert Rendel as Colonel.
- Archibald Batty as Adjutant.
- Derek Elphinstone as Lieutenant Parker.
- Hal Walters as Joe.
- Norman Pierce as Sergeant Brown.
- Henry Oscar as Dr. Harraz.
- John Laurie as the Khalifa Abdullah.
It was mostly filmed on location in the Sudan in Technicolor.
Forty soldiers of the 1st Battalion the East Surrey Regiment were used in period uniforms for scenes in which they withstood the Dervish advance en-masse.
Four Feathers Films
You can find a full index and overview of The Four Feathers Films here.
Khartoum, a 1966 film dealing with the events leading up to General Gordon’s death.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Zoltan Korda.
- Producer(s): Alexander Korda.
- Writer(s): R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro, and Arthur Wimperis.
- Music: Miklos Rozsa.
- Cinematography: Georges Perinal.
- Editor(s): Henry Cornelius.
- Production: London Films.
- Distributor(s): United Artists.
- Release Date: 20 April 1939 (UK) and 04 August 1939 (US).
- Running Time: 130 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.