Monday, 31 October 2011

The Four Feathers (1939) - Zoltan Korda

This fourth film adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's boys own style adventure novel is widely regarded as the best of the seven out there. Who am I to argue? I've never read the book, or for that matter seen any of the other versions, including yet another by Zoltan Korda (who directed this). From what I understand this version is one of the least faithful to the source material. Still I've said it before and it bears repeating, books and films operate in very different ways. A film with a book style narrative needn't work very well and vice versa.

Set back in the Victorian age when Johnny Foreigner was nothing more than someone to be killed while we picked his pocket, this is very much a tale of stiff upper lips and doing the right thing. Harry Faversham (John Clements) comes from a long line of military men, despite not having any desire to enlist, he buckles under the weight of his ancestry and his overpowering father and joins the army. On the eve of being shipped overseas to fight Fight FIGHT, and with his father now firmly six feet underground, he decides to resign from the army and start to live his own life. Three of his best friends (also military officers) send him a feather with their names attached to it (the fourth comes from his fiance). Apparently this is what was done if you felt someone was a coward back then, it's a notch up from flapping your arms about and making bad chicken noises I guess.

Anyway Harry decides that he needs to redeem himself and prove that he's a brave little soldier after all, so that he can win the dame and the film can end on a high note. So off he sets under his own steam to do just that.

At just five minutes under two hours this chugs along at a fair old pace, the screenplay is by none other than R.C. Sherriff and it's faultless. In fact the whole shebang has so much talent both behind and in front of the camera that it would be more surprising if this was trash rather than the classic that it so clearly is. As well as Zoltan, you have both his brothers;- Alexander (no mean director himself) and Vincent working as producer and designer respectively. Then there's the great Georges Périnal as the Director of Photography, and even both Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth as uncredited camera operators.

In front of the huge Technicolor camera are such old favourites as John Laurie, C. Aubrey Smith and best of all Ralph Richardson. Richardson really steals the film especially after he goes blind half way through. He plays the whole thing with just the right shade of hopeless bravery, and will have you digging out The Fallen Idol for certain once the film has ended.

This version of The Four Feathers looks absolutely gorgeous too. Now I'm not the worlds biggest Technicolor film fan but sometimes when used on the right subject matter I think it works a treat. This is one of those occasions. The location footage is great, be it the greenery of England or the huge dry expanses of Egypt, it looks lush. It's hard to imagine just how this must have looked to those people living in black and white, when they saw this at the time down the local Roxy. It wouldn't shock me to read that David Lean had had a peek at this before setting off to film Lawrence of Arabia for instance.

In fact it's Lawrence that springs most readily to mind when watching this. After all both are well scripted epic productions that rattle by and look as good as any film could look, add to that the desert setting, camels galore and that aforementioned stiff upper lip mentality and it's not all that surprising to find out that Alexander Korda had been trying to get Lawrence of Arabia made since the mid 30's.

So all in all a great British film, but not only that but a great epic film too, one of those cast of thousands type affairs that feel as old fashioned as a VCR player does nowadays. Pretty much since Gladiator we've been duped into thinking that CGI crowds are something to look at with open mouthed joy, when in fact films like this put them to shame and show them up for what they are. I like it when you can see what a struggle it must have been to get a crane shot, some slight camera wobble or some such, whereas I hate the obligatory zooming and floating all over the shop modern style. Since the camera is in the computer so we can put it anywhere we want, right? Well would it be so bad to at least try and make it look like it was being held by a person?

Alright rant over, seriously this is a cracking film and well worthy of all the praise heaped upon it. Does make me wonder just why Zoltan Korda would reshoot it using the same script 16 years later though. Strange bloke.

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