Cowardice and Colonialism: The Four Feathers (1939)


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The novel that The Four Feathers (1939) is based upon was written by A.E.W. Mason in 1902, just a few short years after the Mahdist War ended. Containing far more detail and side-stories than any film version, its central theme, cowardice in the face of possible death, does rings true in the cinematic adaptations of the story. The primary character, Lieutenant Harry Faversham (John Clements) decides he cannot face the possibility of dying in battle. As such, he resigns from his commission in the army and does not join his friends, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Lieutenant Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Lieutenant Willoughby (Jack Allen), as they head off to war. Following his withdrawal, they each send Faversham a white feather, a symbol of cowardice. That’s bad enough but it’s the fourth one that pushes him beyond what he can accept in himself, as a man and a soldier.

The story begins ten years before the events described above. Harry has just turned fifteen and his father is not happy with him. Harry comes from a long line of British officers who have distinguished themselves in the line of duty but Harry shows no desire to join them. His father makes him attend a dinner of old army comrades who regale Harry with brutal stories of death in battle and of cowards who ran away. One story in particular, of a man whose cowardice resulted in the deaths and dismemberment of others, until he kills himself, stays with Harry. Ten years later, he tells the family friend Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley) that the story has haunted him ever since. But all of the stories are awful, not because they speak of blood and guts, but because they treat war as a game, something to be done for glory alone. These old soldiers think of British Colonialism as nothing more than a great way to go into different lands and brag about their exploits in battle. Harry isn’t enamored with that idea at all.


When we arrive at the present of the story, Harry is an officer in the army along with his friends previously mentioned. He is engaged to Ethne (June Duprez), daughter of General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith), the very man who told most of the awful stories on his fifteenth birthday, and his father has died. The Anglo-Egyptian forces are fighting in the Sudan and his regiment is called to battle. Rather than fight, he resigns his commission, explaining to Ethne that he only joined to please his father and now, with his father dead, is released from that obligation. That’s when he receives the three feathers from his friends and can clearly see that Ethne, though heartbroken, agrees with them. He insists that she give him a white feather too and snatches one from her hat. Knowing that the woman he loves thinks him a coward affects him far more than his three friends. Mainly, however, he is affected because he knows it to be true. He believes he is a coward and that all of his talk about the British having no business fighting wars in other lands was really just a way out of battle for himself. He embarks on a mission to reclaim his dignity by disguising himself as a member of the Sangali, a people who had their tongues cut out for opposing the Khalifa (John Laurie). Thus he can infiltrate their forces, help his friends, and force them to take back their feathers.

The Four Feathers was written at a time when a conscientious objector was simply not something looked upon with any respect. There is a story to be made about a Harry Faveresham who resigns his commission because he truly objects to what the British are doing and will not be a part of it but this is not that story. Coming from the turn of the century, novelist Mason couldn’t see a British officer resigning his commission for any other reason than cowardice so, naturally, Faversham comes to this same conclusion about himself. But as he displays great bravery in both resigning his commission, in the face of certain ridicule, and in his physical exploits in the Sudan, it is questionable whether the mantel of coward fits him at all. Clearly, Mason doesn’t intend it to. Rather,
Faversham was never truly a coward and it was his friends’ derision that awakened the real man inside who can now redeem himself in battle. Thus, the movie and book argue, quite archaically, that all a case of nerves really needs is a little shaming.

Though produced in 1939, and filled with ideas of British nationalism, the film remains today remarkably level-headed in its portrayal of the belligerents involved. It’s not a story about the implications of the wars the British fought but one of honor, loyalty and friendship and is, in many ways, a more serious companion to the most famous Gunga Din film adaptation, produced the very same year. The two films complement each other quite well. Gunga Din is filled with fun and adventure and witty repartee between Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Victor McLaglen while The Four Feathers takes a harder, more tragic view of the period.


The Four Feathers also boasts beautiful color cinematography with some extraordinary shots, like the one in which Ralph Richardson passes a set of trees from which swarms of locusts fly over his head. And its color palette is restrained throughout. Director Zoltan Korda and his brother, producer Alexander Korda, filmed much of the film on location in the Sudan and, fortunately, did not feel the need to make everything as brightly colored as they possibly could, an unfortunate tendency for many early Technicolor films.

The performances are excellent all around but particularly those of the two leads, John Clements and Ralph Richardson. Clements has the difficult role of playing a man gripped by regret and self-pity who suddenly turns heroic. His early scenes are not played for pathos, as a man filled with self pity, but bitter regret and anger over his own bad decisions. And Ralph Richardson has a menacing air about him that turns to fear and confusion as his own situation in the desert becomes an insurmountable climb. Finally, C. Aubrey Smith, never one to disappoint, fills his role with exactly the kind of bluster one would expect for such a blowhard character but also manages poignant moments of disappointment in Harry and tearful sentiment as his own son leaves for war.

Zolton Korda’s The Four Feathers holds up as both an adventure and character study, both of Faversham and Durrance. Korda’s direction keeps the actors in harmony with each other and the pace steady and swift. And it looks great, with location shooting and a thankfully restrained color palette. The Four Feathers has been adapted to film several times, but this version is my favorite of the versions I’ve seen, and for a year filled with great movies, 1939, The Four Feathers manages to shine right alongside the best of them.

Greg Ferrara

6 Responses Cowardice and Colonialism: The Four Feathers (1939)
Posted By Charles Berger : April 28, 2017 1:57 pm

A great review of one of my all time favorite pictures. As a boy of fifteen (1953) I first saw this film along with Gunga Din in a Times Square theater. To say I’ve watched it a hundred times is an under statement. I think the acting was superb. I knew of Ralph Richardson, but had not known of John Clements until seeing the film. A great actor, he appeared in very few movies, preferring to perform and direct on the British stage.

Thanks for the review.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 28, 2017 3:12 pm

Charles, watching it again last week, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how beautiful the film looked and how terrific the acting was. The last time I saw it before then was probably five or six years ago and it feels like it gets better each time I see it.

Posted By Renee Leask : April 28, 2017 6:03 pm

I really love this film too. Plus, your post gives me a chance to laud Ralph Richardson, who was a titan in the British theatre and who I believe understood film acting better than any of his peers.

Posted By Charles Berger : April 28, 2017 10:32 pm

I have enjoyed so many British movies and actors over the years.
We’re fortunate through television and you tube that we are able
to watch them.
Richardson was certainly top notch. Loved him in a spy drama in the late thirties with Olivier and Valerie Hudson. He had a great flair for comedy.

Posted By Rosie Powell : June 20, 2017 1:27 pm

As an adventure film, it is pretty good. But I found its pro-Imperialism rather heavy-handed. In fact, I found it more heavy-handed than any other pro-Imperial film of the period.

Faversham was never truly a coward and it was his friends’ derision that awakened the real man inside who can now redeem himself in battle. Thus, the movie and book argue, quite archaically, that all a case of nerves really needs is a little shaming.

Haversham was a coward when he joined the British Army in the first place, when he obviously did not want to.

Posted By Charles Berger : July 3, 2017 7:35 am

Rosie, you make a good point about pro imperialism. Although I did nor mention that in my initial remarks, I was probably thinking about the movie as I did at age fifteen when I first viewed it.
As I look back at so many movies of that era both British and American with a war theme, one can see the propaganda the studios were putting into their films.

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