Watching 1939: The Four Feathers (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: The Four Feathers

Release date:  April 18, 1939

Cast:  John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez, Allan Jeayes, Jack Allen, Donald Gray, Donald Gray, Frederick Culley, Clive Baxter

Studio:  London Film Productions

Director:  Zoltan Korda

Plot: Set in 1902, Harry (Clements) resigns from the military right before he is supposed to go to Africa to serve, shirking tradition. He never wanted to serve in the military decides he won’t now that his father has died and he no longer has to follow his wishes. Before his friends travel to Egypt, they send him white feathers signifying that he’s a coward.

1939 Notes:
• All three Korda brothers worked on this film: Zoltan Korda directed, Alexander Korda produced, and Vincent Korda was the production designer.
• The only film Zoltan Korda directed in 1939
• Actor John Clements’ only film released in 1939.
• C. Aubrey Smith was in eight films released in 1939.
• Ralph Richardson was in five films released in 1939

Harry (Clements) receives the white feathers to say he is a coward.

Other trivia: 
• Released in the United Kingdom in April 1939 and in the United States in August 1939
• Based on the novel of the same name written by A. E. W. Mason, published in 1902
• There are several different versions of this film:
The Four Feathers (1915) starring Edgar L. Davenport, Fuller Mellish, Ogden Childe
The Four Feathers (1921) starring Harry Ham, Mary Massart, Cyril Percival
The Four Feathers (1929) starring Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, Clive Brook, William Powell
Storm Over the Nile (1955) starring Anthony Steel, Laurence Harvey, James Robertson Justice
The Four Feathers (2002) starring Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
I’m a little behind with my “Watching 1939” review, because I’m frankly not sure how to word my thoughts on “Four Feathers” (1939). I’m not even sure if I have any thoughts about it at all.

“Four Feathers” (1939) is a lavish Technicolor adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 book. After deciding to resign from the military because he never wanted to, Harry is gifted with four white feathers from his friends to signify that they think he’s a coward. Jerks.

Harry in disguise

So Harry, played by John Clements, heads to Egypt where his friends are fighting and disguise himself as a muse Sangali native so he can anonymously help them out. His friends eventually figure out it’s him and he is vindicated when he returns back to England.

This isn’t a bad film, I’m just left ambivalent. I didn’t dislike it, but also didn’t love it either. I don’t really feel anything about it.

There are a few things I would say worth noting:
• The three Korda brothers all worked on this film.
• The Technicolor and cinematography are gorgeous
• C. Aubrey Smith is truly the best character

Despite my ambivalence, this is an exciting film, but it’s also rather sad. Two hours and 9 minutes also feels rather long for this story.

I have read that The Four Feathers is an “essential” film. Now that I have watched it twice, I’m not sure what I’m missing and why I don’t feel the same enthusiasm. Would a third time viewing be the charm?

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5 thoughts on “Watching 1939: The Four Feathers (1939)

  1. You are not even sure you have any thoughts about this gorgeous Technicolor desert epic? It has a 100% freshness rating from Rotten Tomatoes and you can’t find two good words to say about it? Critic Michael Sragow called it the most “harrowingly beautiful of all desert spectaculars,” mostly filmed on location in the Sudan, and second only to “Lawrence of Arabia.” It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival. The talent involved in the making of this film is just staggering. And the Academy Award Technicolor camerawork of Georges Perinal and Osmond Borradaille is without peer. Please give it a second viewing. It was a childhood favorite of mine that still has the power to enchant me anew to this day..

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    • Your comment brings up an interesting discussion: Are we obligated to like films that are award-winning and critically acclaimed? I say no.
      But from your closing sentence, I would say you are a big fan of “Four Feathers” and your passion shows. I appreciate that. However, I do want to note a few things:
      -This was my second viewing
      -I noted the beauty of the cinematography
      -I don’t dislike it and liked it fine. However, I wasn’t left with much of a lasting impression.

      One day I will watch it again for a third viewing when the time feels right.

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      • Thank you Comet,
        Perhaps my critique of your less than satisfactory reaction to “Four Feathers,” was a bit strident, for which I apologize. But since the film is among those at the apex of those I revere, I was more than a little surprised that you did not share my wild enthusiasm for it. To me, it was like someone not being as mesmerized by the beauty of the 1940 “Thief of Bagdad,” directed by Michael Powell, as I was. And like “Four Feathers. I never pass up an opportunity to see it. .But look, I understand that age differences play a big part in our love of certain movies. I saw “Feathers” as a child growing up in British Guiana and it made a lasting impression. No, Comet, it is not compulsory for you to like a film just because critics –and an old guy like me — lauded it. A case in point is “Roma,”
        a film so well received and honored today that I feel heretical in saying that it is much ado about very little, very little, The film that should be have garnered all the accolades is Peter Jackson’s uncanny restoration of the twitchy WW1 newsreel footage of the “war to end all wars” and gave it new and vivid life– in color and 3D yet!. What an undertaking! And what amazing results from his and his team’s efforts. It should be required watching for all in high school and in college. Sorry for being so long-winded but I’m taking full advantage of a platform that allows me opportunity to do so.

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      • Now “Thief of Bagdad” is one I do like! Very cool that you grew up in British Guiana! I still haven’t seen Roma or Peter Jackson’s WW1 documentary. The WW1 one is a film I’m very eager to see. Thank you for reading!

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  2. I do love “The Four Feathers” and have watched it several times, lately on YouTube. Right away, in the opening credits, one knows this will be a superior film because the music is gorgeous, score written by the great Miklos Rozsa, another of the several Hungarians collaborating here. The movie looks beautiful [at least in the English scenes] and the actors are better than average, particularly C. Aubrey Smith, Frederick Culley, and Sir Ralph Richardson, although he overacted some in this picture.but overcame that to shine in subsequent films. “The Four Feathers” never seems too long to me! It’s an classic.

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