[box cover]

The Four Feathers (1939)

It was one of those freak cinematic years, an anomaly of riches. A brief list of films released in 1939 would include Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Gunga Din, and The Rules of the Game. Today, whenever a cinematic year feels like a stacked deck of great movies, '39 becomes the measuring stick. Now, The Four Feathers is a ripping adventure yarn that's one of the best of its kind. And if it gets aced out of a "best of" 1939 list, it's only because there's so much to choose from. The Favershams have a long history of being involved in the military, so it is expected of son Harry (John Clements) to do his duty to Crown and country. But having been raised on tales of bitter victories, when it's announced his crew is to ship out to the Sudan, he decides to resign his post, in part because of his looming marriage to Ethne Burroughs (June Deprez). Logical though it may be, his three best friends send him feathers to denote his cowardice — the coup de grace is the fourth feather, this one from his fiancée. Saddled with the charge of desertion, Harry concocts a plan to reach the front by pretending to be from a tribe of mute Arabs, and then he helps his friends in order to return their feathers. His first feathered friend is Capt. John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), whom he must not only keep safe from a midnight raid, but must also look after as he's gone blind from staring at the sun — this also adds drama, as Harry doesn't reveal his identity. Durrance was the other beau after Ethne's heart, and when he is sent home, the two get engaged — but if Harry survives there might be another battle for her hand. To modern eyes The Four Feathers may play a bit slow, and a bit British, and — like many movies from its time — politically incorrect (the Sudanese are referred to as "fuzzy wuzzies" both in the film and the trailer, which might be more offensive if it wasn't so antiquated). But as it builds to its prison-break conclusion, one can see why A.E.W. Mason's story has been adapted for the screen seven times (most recently in 2002), and why the 1955 version Storm on the Nile borrowed footage from this release. It's an epic adventure film with a very simple story about honor and respect, and 1939's adaptation remains definitive. MGM presents The Four Feathers in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) and monaural DD 2.0 audio. For a Technicolor production, the source-print doesn't look as stunning as it might have on opening night, but that sort of restoration is practically unrealistic at this time. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—DSH



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