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Zoltán Korda
John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez, Allan Jeayes, Jack Allen, Donald Gray, Frederick Culley
Writing Credits:
A.E.W. Mason (novel), R.C. Sherriff

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This Technicolor spectacular, directed by Zoltán Korda, is considered the finest of the many adaptations of A. E. W. Mason’s classic 1902 adventure novel about the British empire’s exploits in Africa, and a crowning achievement of Alexander Korda’s legendary production company, London Films. Set at the end of the nineteenth century, The Four Feathers follows the travails of a young officer (John Clements) accused of cowardice after he resigns his post on the eve of a major deployment to Khartoum; he must then fight to redeem himself in the eyes of his fellow officers (including Ralph Richardson) and fiancée (June Duprez). Featuring music by Miklós Rózsa and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile, The Four Feathers is a thrilling, thunderous epic.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 115 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 10/11/2011

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Charles Drazin
• Interview with Director’s Son David Korda
• “A Day at Denham” Vintage Promotional Film
• Trailer

• Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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The Four Feathers: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1939)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 17, 2011)

For the best-regarded adaptation of the 1902 novel, we head to 1939’s The Four Feathers. We start in England circa 1885, where we meet 15-year-old Harry Faversham (Clive Baxter). Part of a long line of military heroes, Harry receives constant indoctrination that he must continue that tradition. Though Harry prefers poetry to war history, he follows his elders’ commands.

From there we fast-forward to 1895 and find Harry as a young officer (John Clements). The British military will head to the Sudan to attempt a reconquest of territory it lost 10 years earlier. Harry gets the command – briefly, at least. Before the regiment sails from England, Harry resigns his post. He doesn’t believe in the military escapade – or this mission - and only joined the service to please his now-dead father, so Harry decides he should move into civilian life.

This doesn’t go well for him. Three of his comrades send him white feathers to symbolize his alleged cowardice. Harry receives a symbolic “fourth feather” when his fiancée Ethne (June Duprez) dumps him due to show her disappointment in his choice.

Shamed by the experience, Harry leaves home and goes to Egypt. There he disguises himself as a native and plans to help his former comrades via this ruse. Harry ends up with more than anticipated, though. When the officers who gave him the feathers end up captured, Harry works to free them and redeem himself once and for all.

Given the era in which Feathers hit screens, its themes create an interesting subject. The film came out in April 1939, less than half a year before England would find itself embroiled in war with Germany.

With all those tensions as a backdrop, the movie’s take on military excursions and cowardice becomes more intriguing. One might expect Feathers to go down a one-sided path that embraces duty above all, but that’s not the case – at least for a while, that is.

During the flick’s first act, Feathers would seem to be an indictment of the “death before dishonor” mindset. We see long-winded veterans harrumph about sacrifice and bravery, and we view Harry as he attempts to stand up for his beliefs.

In this day and age, I suspect the conscientious objector would be portrayed as a hero. In 1939, apparently that wasn’t possible. Rather than laud Harry for his initial refusal to indulge in a seemingly pointless imperial war in some far-off land, the movie eventually makes it clear that it views him as a coward.

Which seems at odds with its first act. As I mentioned, one could easily view the movie’s opening as a criticism of the “might makes right” mindset; indeed, the warmongering men seem like such blathering dopes – and Harry comes across as so thoughtful and high-minded - that it’s tough to accept that the filmmakers attempted any other message.

A listen to this disc’s audio commentary reveals the change in tone, as a dispute between producer and director created the discrepancy. Any leanings toward the pacifist side of the street quickly vanish once Harry decides he regrets his resignation and plots to prove his heroism.

I find this sad for a variety of reasons, but mainly this one: the story could have easily had its cake and eaten it, too. Rather than posit him as an actual coward – which it does – the movie could’ve kept Harry as dignified and thoughtful if it saved his decision to go to Egypt until after his friends got captured. Keep Harry in England until he hears of their plight and then send him to rescue them. He proves his heroism but keeps his dignity – and original decision – intact.

Alas, this doesn’t happen, so after a promising intellectual start, Feathers goes noodle-brained. Yes, I recognize that my view of the film in that regard comes from a 21st century stance and may not be fair. However, I feel my criticisms are acceptable given the movie’s initial tone and viewpoint. If Feathers always went down the rah rah path, I’d not quibble with its character choices, but given its early attempts at thoughtfulness, its ultimate decision to embrace all things military comes as a disappointment.

If we get past that issue, though – as well as its rampant racism and political incorrectness - and simply embrace Feathers as a cinematic adventure, it seems quite winning. The movie boasts gorgeous photography as well as more than adequate action sequences. The tale depicts Harry’s attempts to save his friends in a vivid manner.

This works best when we see Harry “undercover” among his former comrades. We view his plotting and get some good fight/battle scenes as well. These add real spark to the movie and help give it punch.

The film features a pretty strong cast as well. Clements takes on the various aspects of the role well; even when forced into a potentially embarrassing part as a mute native, he shows some dignity and skill.

As the “other man” in the love triangle with Harry and Ethne, Ralph Richardson delivers the movie’s strongest performance. He creates a three-dimensional personality who manages his own form of bravery and does more with the part than one would expect. He’s a real highlight.

While I don’t like some of the movie’s narrative choices, I can’t fault it for being a product of its era. The Four Feathers disappoints when it fails to become as progressive as it initially appears, but it still provides an interesting tale along with lively action, good performances and attractive photography. This ends up as a dated but enjoyable adventure.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C/ Audio C/ Bonus C+

The Four Feathers appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. The same production company created 1940’s Thief of Bagdad, and Criterion’s release of that looked pretty great. Unfortunately, Feathers offered a much more mixed bag in terms of its visuals.

At its best, the image seemed pretty good – not great, but pretty good. The picture tended to be rather erratic, and its ups and downs affected all aspects of the presentation. Sharpness varied quite a lot. Some shots demonstrated fairly solid clarity and accuracy, but others could seem somewhat soft and fuzzy. Overall definition was fine, however, as the concise shots outweighed the iffier ones.

I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and the image lacked edge haloes. Print flaws were an occasional concern, though they didn’t seem bad given the movie’s age. In early scenes, I noticed some thin vertical lines, and a few specks cropped up throughout the film. These became less apparent as the film progressed, though, so the movie usually looked pretty clean. It came with natural but not intrusive grain.

The Technicolor hues could appear bold and vivid – or they could seem messy and flat. The movie’s colors tended to be all over the place and created some distractions. As with the print flaws, these issues cropped up most prominently in the movie’s first act. Skin tones veer from brown to pink to red, and the image could take on a rather green cast. Colors also sometimes pulsed. Again, the hues improved as the movie continued; they never lived up to the vibrant highs that Technicolor could achieve, but at least they appeared better than during the first act.

Blacks were a strong element, as dark tones came across with good depth. Shadows were another relatively positive component, as low-light shots often seemed smooth and clear. Actually, the nighttime sequence with Ethne offered the first act’s most appealing segment, as the shots came across as nicely defined. Later “day for night” scenes tended to be dense, but that was an unavoidable issue related to the original photography.

Unfortunately, I never saw prior home video versions of Feathers, so I couldn’t say how this transfer compared to those. I do put a lot of faith in Criterion, especially during the Blu-ray age; while some of their DVD transfers demonstrated questionable quality, their Blu-rays have been mostly excellent. And as I noted, I was quite pleased with the DVD of Thief of Bagdad they prepared. (That release predates Criterion’s decision to “go Blu”, so there’s no high-res version of it yet.)

I can’t deny that the picture quality of Feathers disappointed me. No, I didn’t expect it to look like a film shot in 2011 – or even fellow Technicolor year-mates like Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz - but I thought it was reasonable to anticipate a picture that seemed at least as good as Thief.

Feathers clearly didn’t live up to that level, and in truth, the image sometimes seemed dodgy. However, it never looked bad, and it usually was adequate to pretty good. While its weaknesses disappointed me, I don’t want to paint this as a poor presentation; it lacked the consistency I expected but had enough strengths to make it perfectly acceptable.

The monaural soundtrack of Feathers also showed its age. Dialogue seemed thin but understandable, and effects and music sounded about the same. The mix appeared happily free of much distortion, though, and most audio was relatively distinct and clean. Music was a bit too dense, but the score wasn’t problematic.

Source noise could be more of a distraction; the flaws weren’t severe, but it sometimes sounded like it was raining in the background. Given the age of the material, Feathers offered an auditory experience that appeared to be average for its era, but it didn’t provide anything more impressive than that.

The Blu-ray comes with a mix of extras. We open with an audio commentary from film historian Charles Drazin. He delivers a running, screen-specific look at the source novel and its adaptation, notes related to the story’s history and the era in which the film was made, cast and crew, the work of and relationship between producer Alexander Korda and director Zoltan Korda, sets and locations, music, and a few other areas.

Expect a thorough – and thoroughly involving – chat from Drazin. He covers all the expected aspects of the production and also nicely gets into issues connected to the filmmakers’ perspectives. I especially like his discussion of the battles between conservative Alexander Korda and more liberal Zoltan Korda. The commentary delivers a lot of good information in an enjoyable manner.

Next comes an Interview with Director’s Son David Korda. In this 23-minute, 14-second piece, the younger Korda discusses his famous family, with an emphasis on his father’s work and life. David Korda lacks much first-person experience with Zoltan’s filmmaking – I don’t know how old he is, but he’s clearly too young to have been there for the shoot of Feathers - but he still delivers a good array of notes.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we get a vintage promotional film called A Day at Denham. With this 10-minute, 21-second piece, we take a look at the London studio circa 1938. It’s a fluffy examination, but it’s a fun look at history, and we see a few shots from the Feathers set along the way.

Like all Criterion releases, Feathers comes with a booklet. However, this one is shorter than usual, as it offers only a 10-page foldout affair with an essay from film historian Michael Sragow. Though not as good as most Criterion booklets, it’s still worthwhile.

Some story and character choices make The Four Feathers less enjoyable than I’d like, but it still does enough right to deliver an interesting adventure. It comes with a mix of positives than more than outweigh its negatives. The Blu-ray delivers erratic – and generally average – picture and audio along with a few supplements highlighted by a strong audio commentary. While the presentation of the film doesn’t excel, it seems adequate, and the movie itself works well.

Viewer Film Ratings: 5 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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