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THE FOUR FEATHERS
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez, Allan Jeayes, Jack Allen, Donald Gray, Frederick Culley
Director: Zoltan Korda
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: 1.37:1 Aspect Ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: October 11, 2011

But to be a soldier *and* a coward is to be an impostor, a menace to the men whose lives are in your hands.

Film ***

My first exposure to The Four Feathers was through the lavish and thoroughly exciting 2002 film version directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring the late Heath Ledger. Upon seeing it, I knew that it was based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason, but was unaware that there were previous film version. The most popular of these is the 1939 version directed by Zoltan Korda.

I'm bound to generate controversy with what I'm about to state, but of the two versions I do find the 2002 adaptation to be the strongest. I might be at fault for having seen it first as well as multiple times before seeing this more appreciated version, but I do find Kapur's film to be stronger in both the extravagant war sequences and the dramatic story arc. That having been said, Korda's film is truly a marvel with action sequences that for the time period are most remarkable.

The story centers on Harry Faversham (John Clements), a British army officer who never really wanted to be one in the first place. He was more or less groomed into the position by his father (Allan Jeayes), a general in the Regiment. Harry was always more in favor of poetry than taking part in a bloodthirsty battle.

The time is the 1890s, and British forces are gathered and ready to take back control of the Sudan. Their reign of that land had ended ten years earlier when Islamic rebels reclaimed it after killing a British general. And so the British, seeing that as an act of disgrace, are more than ready to take back what they see as theirs and theirs only.

Harry, meanwhile, is engaged to marry Ethne (June Duprez), daughter of another general in the army, Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith). With his approaching marriage, combined with the notion that his father has recently passed, Harry decides to resign his commission on the eve of the regiment being shipped out for battle. Three of his fellow officers; John (Ralph Richardson), Peter (Donald Gray) and Willoughby (Jack Allen) are stunned by Harry's decision, and respond to it by each giving him a white feather, symbolizing cowardice.

The real sucker punch comes Ethne's unexpected disapproval of Harry's choice. He thought quitting the army to enjoy a married life with her would have something of an opposite effect. He instantly considers her reaction as the fourth feather.

So, in order to redeem himself and prove his bravery, Harry journeys to the Sudan, where he plans to disguise himself as an Arab. He will then locate his fellow officers on the battlefield and save them from trouble. And he does accomplish this, at first through anonymity, though he does eventually reveal himself to his fellow lads.

Released the same year as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, this is a Technicolor marvel that was no doubt overshadowed by those much bigger releases. But what has to be appreciated, especially when watching the film on Blu-ray, is the staging of the a huge climatic battle sequence, which for 1939, had to be a filmmaking achievement ahead of its time. Color was just now finding its perfect touch in films, and seeing a lengthy battle scene like this had to have blown audiences away immensely.

Although I appreciated the more recent film version, finding the action and dramatic qualities simply to be much more powerfully effective, the 1939 incarnation of The Four Feathers is a filmmaking achievement to behold. The location set pieces are nothing short of marvelous in bringing the settings to life. If anything, this was taking war pictures to a whole new level as far as the time period was concerned.

Video ***1/2

There is simply no topping Criterion Blu-ray releases when it comes to picture quality, no matter how much age we're talking here. For this release, they present the film in the original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and pretty much render the color quality of the period, meaning you will see some flaws along the way...but nothing distracting. This perfectly illustrates how to handle a classic film on Blu-ray, by basically preserving the original picture and touching it up slightly...not overdoing it.

Audio ***

The mono presentation brings with it just the right amount of balance, as much as a sound mix of this type can. You will hear distant scratches in the more quieter moments, but the dialogue delivery is on point and the battle sequences do offer up some truly impressive playback for a film from this era!

Features ***

For this Blu-ray release, Criterion makes a great effort to supply quality over quantity. There's an audio commentary with film historian Charles Drazin, as well as a brand new video interview with David Korda (son of the director), as well as a 1939 short film titled A Day at Denham, featuring on the set footage with director Korda, and a Theatrical Trailer.

And, like all great Criterion releases, this comes with an insert booklet. This one features an essay by film critic Michael Sragow.

Summary:

Though I'd recommend the 2002 version more enthusiastically, this 1939 adaptation of The Four Feathers is effective in all the right spots. The battle scenes are easily the most thrilling aspect when you consider when the film was made. If anything, it's a prime example of the kind of thrilling action escapism audiences in the late 30s were no doubt hungry for!

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