I didn’t have cable until I was into my teens, so I ended up mostly watching two independent stations that ran a lot of syndicated TV and old movies, especially on the weekend days and late at night (this was before the advent of the infomercial that later took over stations like these). They’d air anything they could get cheap, and this tended to include a lot of older genre movies and Japanese kaiju films. Needless to say, it was a young boy’s dream.
One movie of the more ancient films that the seemed to air every other weekend was The Four Feathers, and I ‘d watch it any time it was on. Directed by Zoltan Korda (Has there ever been a cooler name?) in 1939, it’s a sprawling military epic filled with location shoots and tens of thousands of extras.
It follows the adventures of Harry Feversham, a British officer, in the Sudan during the late 19th century. The film is perhaps the best known of seven (!) adaptations of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel of the same name. Our protagonist, it seems, doesn’t particularly want to leave his new fiance to travel to a god-forsaken desert and shoot people. When he resigns his commission, his three buddies send him the titular objects to let him know they don’t abide cowardice. Harry is willing to take the insult in stride, until he discovers the fourth feather from none other than his fiance. Harry then learns that the expedition his friends were a part of ended in disaster, and they’ve been captured by the enemy. To redeem himself, Harry then sets out on a one-man rescue mission to free them.
As you may have guessed, the whole moral framework of the film seems pretty warped to a modern viewer. You’ve definitely got to be in an old-school frame of mind to see Harry as a character who has to redeem himself, and to not view his fiance in particular as a pretty awful person. Just check your modern sensibilities at the door before you watch.
And what you watch is a real visual treat. The incredible location shoots are amazing even today, but it’s the battle sequences that really stand out. No amount of amazing CG can top tens of thousands of actual people, horses and camels charging at each other with spears and rifles. Needless to say, the film looks a good as it ever will on a Criterion Edition Blu Ray.
So for queen and country, give this gem a shot.
The film is on YouTube in it’s entirety if you’re less picky about picture quality, but it obviously doesn’t do the film justice.