The Four Feathers (1939) – A Classic Movie Review

This 1939 British version of the story stars John Clements as Harry Faversham a young Englishman whose family has a centuries old tradition of military service but who himself fears the reality of war.  He is engaged to Ethne Burroughs daughter of retired General Burroughs and sister to Peter Burroughs his best friend and comrade in the Royal North Surrey Regiment of the British Army.  Ralph Richardson plays Captain John Durrance, Faversham’s rival for Ethne’s love and the main cast is rounded out by Jack Allen as Lieutenant Willoughby.

As the marriage approaches the British Army is about to send an expedition from Egypt to Sudan to reconquer Khartoum ten years after the Mahdi had captured it from General Gordon.  The Royal North Surrey Regiment is called up for service but Faversham resigns his commission to avoid fighting.  His three friends send him a package that consists of a box with three white feathers attached to cards with each of their names.  When he arrives at Ethne’s home her father will not even speak to him and because of Ethne’s sorrowful reaction to his actions he takes a white feather from her fan and tells her he will add it as her contribution to his collection of white feathers.

Now feeling himself to be the coward that his friends have declared him he visits his father’s old friend Dr Sutton and works through his feelings with this mentor and decides that he must restore his honor by going to Sudan and proving himself.  But of course, he’s no longer in the British Army so he goes to Egypt and recruits the help of an Egyptian friend of Dr. Sutton who disguises him as a native.  But to hide his lack of knowledge of Arabic he is branded on the forehead to appear as one of the mute Sangali tribe.  In this guise he travels to Sudan and joins the work gang that is helping to transport the British Army under Kitchener to Khartoum.  And he is just in time to save Captain John Durrance from death when his company is surrounded by the Mahdi’s army during a diversionary action that the British planned to allow the bulk of their army to escape a battle at the enemy’s stronghold.

Durrance has suffered a heat stroke and is now blind.  When his position is being overrun Faversham is able to save his life although both of them are wounded and left for dead by the Mahdi’s men.  Burroughs and Willoughby are captured and taken back to Khartoum for imprisonment or worse.

Faversham continues the impersonation of a mute while he transports Durrance across the desert back to the British territory and medical help.  Before escaping from the British Faversham manages to place the feather that Durrance gave him back in Durrance’s wallet.

Now Faversham travels to Khartoum and manages to give his two friends a file that they can use to saw through their shackles in prison.  He ends up being discovered as an Englishman by the Mahdi and tortured for information.  He is thrown into the prison with his friends.  He reveals himself to his friends and tells them his plan.  If the Mahdi is beaten by Kitchener in battle, he is likely to retreat back to Khartoum and kill his prisoners before the British can take the town and free them.  So, Faversham’s plan is to use the file to free as many of the prisoners as possible and wait until the Mahdi’s army sets out for battle then overwhelm the few guards and take possession of the arsenal building that will provide them with the weapons and walls they need to survive until the British take the town.

Things work as Faversham expects until the British army follows the Mahdi’s army and begins bombarding the arsenal.  To save themselves from being blown to bits they manage to find an old British flag from the former regime and raise it over the arsenal just in time to save their lives.

Returning to England with his comrades Faversham finds himself forgiven his former cowardice and indeed a hero.  But most importantly his fiancée revives her plan to marry him.

The movie has several things going for it.  It was filmed on location in the places depicted in the story.  The cinematography is impressive and the production was able to enlist British soldiers in period costumes to film the battle scenes.  Large forces of men on camels and horses also adds drama to these scenes.  The story is highly improbable but the action is enjoyable and the characters are interesting.  One standout is C. Aubrey Smith’s portrayal of General Burroughs.  In several scenes Burrough’s laments the present-day army’s lack of toughness.  In each case he uses food found on a banquet table to reenact the Crimean War, Battle of Balaclava.  By the end of the movie, to the relief of the audience, Faversham is in a position to finally shut up his prospective father-in-law by correcting his mistaken narrative of how Burroughs’s actually began the famous charge.  I like these old tales from the British Empire.  They are filled with adventure and the ethos of the time.  Highly recommended for fans of high adventure.

Libel (1959) – A Movie Review

Libel is a British courtroom drama. The legal case is a libel charge against a man, Jeffrey Buckenham, who claims that an imposter stole the identity of an English baronet.  Buckenham claims that during WWII in a German POW camp, a fellow POW who looked remarkably similar to Sir Mark Loddon stole his identity during an escape from the camp.  Buckenham claims that during their escape the imposter, Frank Welney, escaped but Lodden perished.  Dirk Bogarde plays both Loddon and Welney.  Olivia de Havilland plays Lodden’s wife, Lady Margaret Loddon.  Paul Massie plays Buckenham.  And finally, familiar character actors Robert Morley and Wilfrid Hyde-White play, respectively, the prosecuting and defense attorneys.

The story develops with us seeing that the man assumed to be Mark Lodden suffers from extreme amnesia of his pre-war life and is also haunted by recurring nightmares that include a snatch of song and an image of a face in a mirror.  His wife provides patient support during all his agony but as the trial progresses the story told by Buckenham begins to eat away at her belief in her husband and his identity.  Buckenham relates details about Welney’s behavior that makes it plausible that he might have pulled off the impersonation.  He was a professional actor.  He had pumped Lodden for details of his private life.  Welney had a missing finger that the present Sir Lodden also claimed to have lost to a bullet wound during his escape.  Buckenham even testified that he overheard Welney talking to himself about impersonating Lodden if he ever returned but Lodden didn’t.  Before the end of the trial Lady Margaret Loddon becomes convinced that she’s married to an imposter that did away with her actual fiancé.

The testimony by Buckenham and Lodden are portrayed with flashbacks of the wartime interaction of the protagonists in the POW camp.  The acting is good.  The script is relatively taut for such a convoluted story and the tension is well maintained.  The finale is a bit of a twist and is as plausible or implausible as the rest of this slightly unlikely story.  I recommend it.