RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
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on A.E.W. Mason’s classic 1902 adventure novel, The Four Feathers had been made three times before this definitive version
of a “British Empire Adventure Film” was released in 1939.Produced by Hungarian-born but UK-based
Alexander Korda, one of the great filmmakers of British cinema, and directed by
his brother Zoltan Korda, The Four
Feathers represents the best of what England had to offer during its day,
as well as the epitome of the kind of yarns spun by Kipling and his ilk.
vivid Technicolor and sporting a cast of hundreds of ethnic extras, the picture
captures the grand Victorian era of the British military and takes place mostly
in Africa some ten years or so after the fall of Khartoum.The story is simple (albeit somewhat
improbable):a young officer (John
Clements) is accused of cowardice by his associates and fiancée after he
resigns his post on the eve of a major deployment to take back the Sudan.Setting out to prove the opposite, he
disguises himself as a mute Arab so that he can “make a difference” from the
inside of the enemy camp and show his “friends” what he’s really made of.At one point, his rival in love, portrayed by
the excellent Ralph Richardson, is struck blind by excessive exposure to the
desert sun—and our hero must help him trek across the country to safety, all
without saying a word or revealing to the man that he’s his old colleague.
particular version of The Four Feathers would
be an impressive film if made today, but for 1939, it’s a masterpiece (the
recent 2002 version doesn’t compare).With its tremendous logistical challenges and
extreme conditions on location, the picture is a marvel to behold.It also contains tons of what are now
familiar clichés of British Empirical tales, mostly embodied by the humorous
performance of overly stately C. Aubrey Smith—and this, too, is a testament of
the film’s influence.The picture is
also a timely (and embarrassingly hilarious) lesson in how racism was taken for
granted during its day.
new Criterion edition, of course, looks gorgeous in a high-definition
restoration.At that time, Natalie
Kalmus (the wife of Technicolor’s inventor, Herbert Kalmus), was forced upon
filmmakers as “color coordinator” if one wanted to use the process, and she had
total control over its application.Whether it was appropriate or not, Natalie went for bold, vivid colors;
in this case the result is happily spectacular.
audio commentary by Charles Drazin is interesting, but the true gem of the
extra features is the interview with Zoltan Korda’s son, David.He sheds light on the lives of the amazing
trio of brothers—Alexander, Zoltan, and Vincent—who became one of the most
important British film families in its history.There is also a vintage documentary short about the Kordas’ studio,
London Films, which features rare footage of Zoltan in action directing The Four Feathers.
about any Criterion Collection release is a must-have.This is one has that quality in spades.