The Four Feathers, Epic Film of Mahdist War, Premieres in US

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The Four Feathers, Epic Film of Mahdist War, Premieres in US

Production still of the Battle of Omdurman, from "The Four Feathers" (1939)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 3, 1939

One of the finest adventure movies of the 1930s was The Four Feathers, the fourth remake of the novel of the same name, and the first made in Technicolor. [There would be three more remakes in 1955, 1977, and 2002. But more on that later…] It was filmed on location in London and the Sudan, and was one of the many movies released by the film industry in 1939, which earned that year the sobriquet of "the greatest year in the history of Hollywood."

Novel's Background

The Four Feathers is a 1902 adventure novel by British writer A.E.W. Mason. In December 1901, Cornhill Magazine announced the title as one of two new serial stories to be published in the forthcoming year. Against the background of the Mahdist War, young Harry Faversham disgraces himself by quitting the army, which others perceive as cowardice, symbolized by the four white feathers they give him. He redeems himself with acts of great courage and wins back the heart of the woman he loves

Film Synopsis

In 1895, the Royal North Surrey Regiment is called to active service to join the army in the Mahdist War against the forces of The Khalifa, the successor of the Mahdi. 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 the regiment's 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 defense, he bitterly demands a fourth feather from her. She refuses, but he plucks one from her fan.

Three of the white feathers sent to Harry Fabersham; Image courtesy of
Three of the white feathers sent to Harry Fabersham
Image courtesy of

Harry confides in Dr. Sutton, an old mentor and former surgeon in his father's regiment (which fought in the Crimean War 40 years previously), that he now realizes he did act out of cowardice and must attempt to redeem himself (Harry rejects the then-current "honorable" thing to do: i.e., blowing his brains out). He travels to Egypt, where he disguises himself as a despised mute Sangali native, with the help of an Egyptian doctor, to hide his lack of knowledge of the local languages. He then follows the general advance of the British army through the deserts of Egypt and into the Sudan.

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 the British 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 finds the delirious Durrance, minsters to him, and takes him 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.

Faversham (Clements) and the blinded Durrance (Richardson); Travel across the Sudan to safety
Faversham (Clements) and the blinded Durrance (Richardson)
Travel across the Sudan to safety

Six months later, the blind Durrance has returned to England. Out of pity, Ethne agrees to marry him. One night at dinner with Ethne, her father General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith), and Dr. Sutton Durrance is relating the tale of his miraculous rescue. To emphasize a point, he pulls out a keepsake letter from Ethne, the only thing he had in his wallet during the "robbery." A handful of desert sand falls out, along with a white feather and his card, revealing to the others that his rescuer was Harry Faversham. Nobody has the heart to tell him.

Meanwhile, after their capture 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 organizes an escape during the upcoming British attack. During the Battle of Omdurman, Faversham leads the other prisoners in overpowering their guards and seizing the Khalifa's arsenal, where they hold until the arrival of British forces.

Durrance learns of Faversham's deeds from a newspaper account and realizes 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. Sometime later, Harry attends a dinner with his friends and Ethne, where General Burroughs acknowledges that Harry has forced all of them to take back their feathers – all except Ethne. During the course of the dinner, General Burroughs begin relating his favorite war story – his brilliant actions at the Battle of Balaclava. Faversham interrupts the general in the midst of his favorite war story to correct his embellishments; the irritated Burroughs (reluctantly admitting to the truthfulness of Harry's corrections) complains that he will never be able to tell that story again. Faversham playfully makes Ethne take back her white feather, as the movie ends.

Notable Castmembers

John Clements (1910-1988); Photograph taken in 1955
John Clements (1910-1988)
Photograph taken in 1955

Sir John Clements (Harry Faversham)

Clements spent the bulk of his acting career in the theatre. After The Four Feathers, he made a number of war films during the Second World War. After 1949, his film appearances grew intermittent. His last two roles were in 1982's Gandhi, and Top Secret! (1988), his last film.

Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) in The Four Feathers; Image from
Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) in The Four Feathers
Image from

Sir Ralph Richardson (as Capt. John Durrance)

Richardson spent the bulk of his career on the British stage, appearing from 1920 up until his death, with a slight interruption due to service in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. During his stage career he was closely associated with fellow actors Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud. He had a reputations for chewing the scenery, and for eccentric behavior both on and offstage.

During the last two decades of his life, Richardson appeared in such well-known films as Exodus (1960), The 300 Spartans (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Khartoum (1966), Dragonslayer (1981), Time Bandits (1981), and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1983). For Greystoke, in which he played Tarzan's grandfather, he was posthumously nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1984, losing to Haing Ngor for The Killing Fields.

June Duprez (1918-1984) with John Clements, The Four Feathers; Image courtesy of
June Duprez (1918-1984) with John Clements, The Four Feathers
Image courtesy of

June Duprez (as Ethne Burroughs)

Duprez was born in England, to American vaudeville performers. She began stage acting in her teen, and also received some extra work in British films. The pinnacle of her career came in 1939 – with The Four Feathers – and in 1940 with the fantasy adventure film The Thief of Bagdad.

The director, producer, and filmmaker Alexander Korda – who helmed Thief – took charge of her career and brought her to Hollywood. He set her asking price at $50,000 a picture, which essentially kept her out of contention for major projects, as she was not as popular in the U.S. as in Britain. She did a number of low-budget movies, and finally quit the movie business after 1961.

C. Aubrey Smith (right) with June Duprez; Image from
C. Aubrey Smith (right) with June Duprez
Image from

Sir C. Aubrey Smith (as General Burroughs)

Movie roles are sometimes based upon what the audience expects to see. In the 1930s and 1940s, if the role called for the tall stereotypical Englishman with the stiff upper lip and stern determination, that man would be C. Aubrey Smith. Born in 1863, Smith graduated from Cambridge University, played cricket, mined for gold in South Africa, and was 30 years of age when he decided to become an actor, Twenty years later Smith stepped in front of the camera for the first time. However, movie fans were looking for young, strapping leading men, and after playing a number of minor roles, Smith stepped away from acting for a while.

It was in 1930, with the advent of sound, that Smith found his position in the movies and that position would be distinguished roles. He played military officers, successful businessmen, ministers of the cloth and ministers of government. With the bushy eyebrows and stoic face, he played men who know about honor, tradition, and the correct path. He worked with big stars such as Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Shirley Temple. Smith received the Order of the British Empire in 1938 and was knighted in 1944. He continued to work up to the time of his death in 1948.

[One of Smith's best film performances was the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, in which he played Col Zapt, who coaches Ronald Colman's character about being a king.

Footnote #1: The Four Feathers received one Academy Award nomination for best cinematography (color). It lost to Gone With the Wind. [The Technicolor filming process caused the creation of this new category, and the separate black and white category continued until 1966. For the 1967 Oscars, the two categories were combined.]

Original 1939 movie poster
Original 1939 movie poster

Footnote #2: Other classic Hollywood films released in 1939 included Beau Geste (2 Oscar nominations), the Buck Rogers serial, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Dodge City, Drums Along the Mohawk (2 nominations), Gone With the Wind (13 nominations, 8 wins), Goodbye Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (2 nominations), The Man in the Iron Mask, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (11 nominations, 1 win), Ninotchka (4 nominations), Of Mice and Men (5 nominations), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (5 nominations), Son of Frankenstein, Stagecoach (2 Oscar wins), The Wizard of Oz (6 nominations, 2 wins), Wuthering Heights (8 nominations), and Young Mr. Lincoln. I urge any true fan of motion pictures to watch these films – online is probably your best bet.

Footnote #3: And don't be put off by the fact that the majority of the above films are in black and white (b&w), with the notable exceptions of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (and, of course, The Four Feathers). The performances, the action, and maybe even some storylines will be enough to keep you watching. These movies are a part of every American's cultural history.

Footnote #4: One of the best scenes in the entire movie, directed with great subtlety, is when General Burroughs returns to his home after seeing off the Royal North Surrey Regiment as they depart for Egypt. He finds Harry Faversham and his daughter Ethne discussing Harry's actions, which prompted his receipt of the first three of the dreaded four white feathers. The general begins a conversation with his daughter, commenting on how splendid the men looked, how bravely he knows they'll fight, etc., etc. During the conversation, the general completely ignores Harry's presence. Finally, Harry speaks up, hoping to explain his decision to the old-school, grizzled veteran of the Crimea. Gen. Burroughs acts shocked that there is another person in the room. He turns around and gives Harry a withering, disdainful look. With a curled lip, Gen. Burroughs proceeds to a nearby window and opens it. He turns around and gives Harry a sneering look, as if he had detected an awful, fetid stench, and leaves the room. Shortly after, as Harry says "There should be four feathers," he forcefully plucks a white feather from a fan Ethne is holding.

Footnote #5: As I mentioned in the introduction, the 1939 version of The Four Feathers was the fourth film of the A.E.W. Mason novel. The first three versions – released in 1915, 1921, and 1929 – were all silent b&w movies. After the 1939 presentation, the next version of the story was released in 1955 with the title Storm Over the Nile. This film was almost a line-by-line, scene-for-scene remake of the 1939 version, even using some of the footage of action scenes – stretched out to fit the film's Cinemascope presentation – and even some of the music from the 1939 film. A TV movie was filmed in 1977, starring mostly British actors (imagine that!) with the exception of American actor Beau Bridges portraying Harry Faversham. Finally, a 2002 version starred Heath Ledger as Faversham. This latest version was made on a $35 million budget, and only made $29 million at the boxoffice.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.