From the earliest days of cinema, the British empire has provided film-makers with the basis for historical epics, biopics, literary adaptations and comedies, but one title has proven more enduring than all others.
AEW Mason’s novel The Four Feathers, first published in 1902, has been filmed no fewer than seven times (in 1915, 1921, 1929, 1939, 1955, 1977 and 2002). While film-makers have been drawn by the story’s action, adventure and romance, not all have been faithful – or even sympathetic – to the original story.
1. The Four Feathers
Dir: Zoltan Korda, UK, 1939. With John Clements, Ralph Richardson, June Duprez.
This is often held as the definitive version of Mason’s boy’s-own adventure story, set in Sudan at the time of the Mahdi uprising. However, the film actually offers greater historical specificity than the novel.
The context for the story is set by opening with the killing of General Gordon and the fall of Khartoum in 1885. It then moves forward by a decade to General Kitchener’s campaign to retake the Sudan and reaches a climactic finale at the battle of Omdurman in 1898, which is not a part of the original story.
In between these key events the filmmakers share the novel’s interest in the empire as a proving ground of a young man’s masculinity. The young man is Harry Faversham (John Clements), who resigns his commission just before his regiment ships out to Sudan.
Three fellow officers send him a white feather, signifying cowardice, and his fiancé proffers the fourth. Harry travels to Sudan and proves his courage by saving the lives of the officers. He returns their feathers, and reconciles with his fiancé.
In many respects this is the archetypal imperial adventure film. The camaraderie of the men is the most important issue, and the women have little role to play. The tone is often lighthearted. There is little interest in the local cause of the conflict, and it is taken for granted that the British are a force of justice in the world. The enemy is pictured as uncivilised, attacking hordes and they apparently have little motive beyond spreading chaos.
Director Zoltan Korda lingers on expansive shots of both the wide Nile and the barren desert, and the battle scenes fill the vast spaces with hundreds of extras.
But is it accurate?
When Alexander Korda was told that the uniforms at a regimental ball should be blue and not red, he is said to have impatiently dismissed the advice with the reminder: “This is Technicolor!” The red uniforms were more visually striking and they remained.
The anecdote reminds us that the film was made by a showman eager to please audiences, but it is worth noting that Korda’s showmanship served a patriotic purpose too. The Four Feathers was made and released on the eve of the Second World War, when a story portraying both Britain’s hesitancy to go to war and the country’s ultimate victory is likely to have been timely and reassuring to many audiences.
2. The Four Feathers
Dir: Don Sharp, UK, 1977. With Beau Bridges, Robert Powell, Jane Seymour
The Korda brothers returned to Mason’s story for one of the last films of their careers, which they renamed Storm Over the Nile (1955). Apart from the cast and a widescreen format, this title was just about all that was new.
The same script was used and the same location footage too. The result was a tepid film which, in the year before Sudan gained its independence, seemed anachronistic and irrelevant. Remarkably, in 1977 the director Don Sharp reused some of the very same footage for his version of the story, but this is not merely a copycat film.
It is actually more faithful to Mason’s novel than the Korda films. The climax, for example, is not the battle of Omdurman but an escape across the desert from Omdurman prison, and there is greater emphasis placed both on Harry’s relationship with his father (played by Harry Andrews) and the romantic triangle of Harry (Beau Bridges), his fiancé (Jane Seymour) and his friend Jack (Robert Powell).
The late 1970s perspective is perhaps overly apparent in the film’s soft glow of nostalgia, marking it as a forerunner of the ‘heritage’ dramas that would soon proliferate on British cinema and television screens.
Harry’s confrontations with his father also seem more redolent of the era of the ‘generation gap’ than the Victorian era. But the film’s modest budget is its greatest limitation. Although it had a theatrical release in Britain, it was made for television in the United States, and its small screen orientation is all too evident.
But is it accurate?
This film is not so concerned with specific events as the earlier and later versions, but its sense of the period is undermined by having the American actor Beau Bridges play Harry. Robert Powell, playing Harry’s closest friend, who is blinded in battle and seeks comfort with his fiancé, gives a performance more attuned to the period.
3. The Four Feathers
Dir: Shekhar Kapur, USA, 2002. With Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson
In the novel and in the Korda films, Harry initially justifies his resignation with a measure of noblesse oblige: he has quit the army so that he can devote his energies to looking after his family’s estate and its tenants. In the 1977 film, Harry justifies his resignation by briefly mocking the idea that he would want to “plant the flag in the Sudan”, but Sharp’s film is too nostalgic to pursue this line of discord any further.
In the 2002 version, however, Harry’s justification is not only blatantly anti-imperialist (“I sometimes wonder what a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere has to do with Her Majesty the Queen”) but fully endorsed by the story that follows.
The British empire is portrayed here simply as a military exercise in conquest and subjugation. It is fuelled by delusions of superiority at home, and it leads only to violence and exploitation abroad. Sudanese children throw rocks at the soldiers, women are forced into prostitution on their behalf, and a cornered soldier prefers suicide to surrender.
It is a radical reworking of Mason’s story. The Indian director Shekhar Kapur had enjoyed a high profile success with his earlier, startling foray into British history, Elizabeth (1999). In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a fresh perspective on a story of western intervention in a Muslim uprising may have seemed timely to his American producers (Miramax and Paramount).
Unfortunately, the film is confused and pleasureless. Heath Ledger’s talents are wasted in the role of Harry: his ‘method’ style of acting is wholly unsuited to playing a 19th-century officer and gentleman.
Kapur tries to shift the film’s sympathies from Harry to his Sudanese guide (Djimon Hounsou) but nothing is revealed about this character beyond his loyalty to Harry. Ultimately, the film is too politically correct to work as an adventure story and too uncertain to be a truly revisionist account.
But is it accurate?
Oddly, the battle of Abu Klea (1885) is portrayed here as a defeat for the British, when it was actually a victory. This hardly matches the film’s assertion that the conquerors were all-powerful, but it fits with its eagerness to see the sun set on the British empire.
Other films about the British empire:
(dir: David Lean, UK/USA, 1962)
Lean’s epic brought a new complexity and even greater spectacle to films about the empire.
(dir: Basil Dearden, UK, 1966)
A less fanciful account of General Gordon and the Mahdi revolt than any version of The Four Feathers offers.
(dir: Richard Attenborough, UK/USA, 1982)
An old-fashioned biopic that nonetheless represented an expanded world view for British empire films.