Home Video Hovel: The Four Feathers
Whenever one is encountering a story from a different time and place, it becomes necessary to acquaint oneself with certain attitudes and customs. As The Four Feathers was a British production from 1939 adapting a novel from 1902 that takes place in the late 1890s, there are several layers through which you have to peer through this. Still, though, I’d be surprised if classic notions of bravery and valor run this deep.
The plot centrally concerns Harry Faversham, who was born and bred to be a soldier, but resigns from active duty on the eve of deployment to the Mahdist War. Unfortunately, he didn’t count on his wife’s resulting shame in what she sees as her husband’s cowardice, so he sets about proving his bravery by – and here’s where things get weird – disguising himself as an Indian peasant in order to find his army buddies and aid them in battle. Not much time is spent showing us how he finds his friends, but in a plot that becomes only more contrived by the second, it’s one of those things you just have to roll with, because the film is too damn good otherwise. I’ve thus far found early Technicolor productions a little stage-y, and not in the lavish, spectacular way they’d become with, say, The Red Shoes, but more…cumbersome. You can quite often feel the weight of the bulky equipment, and how little freedom it engendered.
Not so with The Four Feathers, which contains the most spectacular desert imagery I’ve seen this side of Lawrence of Arabia. Shooting in the Sudan, Korda finds images that no one else was presenting at the time, and makes Technicolor filmmaking seem totally unburdened. The battles are unforgettable – cutting quickly between images to emphasize impact rather than necessarily continuity proves a perfect way to present large-scale battles in which we’re not always following one or two people – and director Zoltán Korda is unafraid to open it up to a few moments so enrapturing they border on the surreal. A flock of birds emerging from some trees, acres of corpses, and one of the most barren landscapes I’ve ever seen onscreen are but a few of the ones we’re treated to, so to speak. The result feels even more like an adventure purely because of the process, and how Korda makes our own world look so otherworldly.
Criterion’s presentation of the film is pretty solid. The heavy lifting of the restoration was done elsewhere, and the result is sometimes a little wanting. Color separation in particular is a little rough, creating green halos and skin tones. But those are relatively isolated incidents, and for the most part it’s quite striking. Most of the scenes set in Britain were shot on stages, and the bright, bold colors contrast pretty sharply with those in the Sudan (which look a lot more natural), but both for the most part look very good. The reds in particular look like they’ll burn a hole through your screen (not in a bad way, mind), and the desert scenes feel absolutely sweltering. The film is, naturally, presented in its original aspect ratio, 1.37:1.
The audio is a little rougher, hissing loudly during some dialogue portions, but the score comes through nice and clear and the sound effects during the battle scenes sounded great. I don’t know this for sure, but I wonder if the sound design influenced Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory, as they both create and aural palette that gives the effect of battle sounds without falling back entirely on canons and rifles firing. The result is a little more surreal, but feels far more unnerving. Anyway, those parts sound great.
I was very pleased with the commentary track by Charles Drazin. I often bemoan dry, British historians who are replete with facts but seem to have very little interest in their subject, and luckily that is not the case with Drazin. His is a mostly biographical commentary, but even as I was listening to it late at night on little sleep, he never failed to keep my interest. He talks a lot about producer Alexander Korda’s influence on the film, both financially (he staked everything on it) and ideologically. Zoltán was his younger brother and something of a hired gun who didn’t agree at all with Alexander’s political ideals, which the film propagates. Yet this balance ends up benefiting the film, at least in my eyes, as it lends Harry’s initial resignation its due credence. Drazin also, thankfully, acknowledges that the plot is kind of ridiculous, and even gets into some philosophical writing about the British army. It’s a thorough, engaging track, and expands greatly one’s appreciation of the film.
We also get a nearly 25-minute interview with David Korda, Zoltán’s son, who talks about how his father lived in Alexander’s shadow, and the family dynamic created by having the three Korda brothers (Vincent was a production designer) so entrenched in the film industry, isolating the other family members. It’s a really good, honest piece about growing up in a family that has had such a huge impact on the industry.
Last, but far from least, is A Day in Denham, a 10-minute behind-the-scenes look at the London Films operation. I’m not kidding when I say it’s one of my new favorite Criterion supplements – not only is it a lot of fun in that old-timey-narration way (“come on, you know better than to clock in late!” the narrator tells a worker fumbling with his punch-card), but it’s a genuinely amazing operation they had. I can watch a short on that explores the workings of nearly any organization, but a classic film studio? Sign me up. It’s on this release not only because London Films was Alexander Korda’s studio, but also because it has a few seconds of footage of Zoltán shooting The Four Feathers. And yeah, those Technicolor cameras really are gigantic.
A booklet (really more of a pamphlet) rounds things out, featuring an essay by film critic Michael Sragow, who talks about the duality of the film’s ideology – championing at once the British military, and also finding bravery on your own terms. It’s a nice appreciation of the film’s more admirable qualities.
On the whole, not my favorite film from The Criterion Collection, but absolutely astounding in so many regards. If you have seen the film and like it, you really have to pick this up. It’s probably the best the film is going to look on home video for a long time, and the supplements, while few, are all outstanding. I was really glad to have gone through them. It’s not at all out of the question that I might pop in A Day in Denham from time to time.