War Movies V: The Four Feathers and Others Set in the British Empire

I saw the remake of The Four Feathers (2002) a few years ago, when it came out. And a few days ago I finally got and viewed the classic 1939 original, (see this comparison). The oldie was better, but both movies had strengths and weaknesses and both are worth seeing. (Wretchard had a good comparison of the book — full text online here — to the remake. Wretchard also wove in a discussion of Churchill’s The River War — full text online here.)

The 2002 version’s strength is its excellent production values: gorgeous English countryside, sun-drenched Sudanese dunes, crisp scarlet tunics, ruddy-cheeked young men playing rugby in the mud, realistic-looking columns of men marching in the desert heat, etc. Those of a historical bent will get a charge out seeing these scenes set in the1880s lovingly recreated, and that is where most of the film’s merit lies. But like any period piece done lately, it ultimately fails to convince. The actors of today are simply too pretty and too vacant to depict the men and women of sterner days and stricter moral codes. Heath Ledger is a man of moderate talents, and Kate Hudson, has some charm but seems best suited for comedy. These two fell short in these more challenging roles, set in an earlier world of hard duties and demanding loves. So the core characters Harry Faversham and Ethne Burroughs, while pretty to look at, lack density. For example, the bodily deportment of the actors is not what one would expect from looking at period photographs, or from reading about the lives and beliefs of the people of those days. They look like modern Americans, uncomfortable in the period garb. The dialogue too often falls far short, frequently jarring any suspension of disbelief as well. And the screenwriters are such creatures of television that they cannot do sustained, coherent narrative, so the film is choppy and episodic, a series of images not a story. Everything is a music video these days.

The director attempted to construct an anti-imperialist superstructure on top of an old-fashioned story that is inconsistent with current views. The story prevailed. I read an interview where he talked about how the film would be “ambiguous” and “post-colonial”. After a rather pompous scrolling text at the beginning, decrying imperialism, the film quickly began to look pretty unambiguous. Courage is good, betraying your country or especially your friends is bad, the redcoats are better than the Mahdists, etc. The introduction of an African character who helps Harry infiltrate behind Mahdist lines was meant, I suppose, to make the whole thing more post-colonial, but all it ends up doing is creating a stereotyped image of a black servant voluntarily aiding his white master out of loyalty, instead of a stereotyped stiff-lipped white adventurer going it alone. Not much progress in seven decades. All that said, the movie has many solid moments, including one excellent battle scene. I was sitting in the theatre next to my wife, and as the dervishes approached a British column in a cloud of dust, I said aloud “form square!” an instant before the officer on screen did, which got a quizzical “how did you know?” from my wife, who should be used to this sort of thing from me. Notably, one actor, Wes Bentley, playing the character Jack Durrance, was impeccable in every way. There are always islands of competence even in such mediocre times as these, and one is occasionally lucky enough to stumble on them. Keep your eye on Wes Bentley.

The 1939 version of The Four Feathers is available on DVD and is probably the better film, though it shows its age. It is done on a grand scale, with very large battle scenes, shot on location in the Sudan. The acting and screen-writing are solid and efficient, in the old-school, theatre-trained way the British were once so good at. This very neat, orderly and linear cinematic style is something we are not accustomed to any longer. Also, the old-fashioned combat sequences tend to bloodless and painless, and hence unconvincing, by our modern standards. The acting style is pre-Method. Harry is played as a penitent who must atone for his betrayal, and this is crisply portrayed by the able but little-known actor John Clements. Durrance is played by Ralph Richardson, a stalwart of British cinema, whose career spanned over 50 years. Richardson’s Durrance is competently handled, but is a relatively undeveloped character, compared to Bentley’s. June Duprez is a superior Ethne, a cooler, more controlled yet deeper-seeming figure who carries herself well and who is more believable as a young woman of the 1880s. The dervishes are depicted as brave but cruel. The racial elements in this older film will make anyone highly sensitive to PC issues break out in a rash.

While I’m at it, I’ll mention some other memorable movies set in the heyday of the Empire.

Two excellent movies set in South Africa gives us diametric views of the British Empire and its army. Zulu (1964) starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, depicts the battle of Roark’s Drift in 1879, in which 140 Welshmen held off 4,000 Zulus. No other movie better captures the red-coated army which conquered so much of the world against vast odds, at least as much through discipline as technology. Color-Sergeant Bourne is the perfect unperturbable non-com (Here is the real Bourne). The Welshmen singing “Men of Harlech” is very stirring. (See this excellent selection of quotes from the movie, and posters.)

Breaker Morant (1980) depicts the nasty counter-guerilla struggle at the trailing end of the Boer War. Australian troops under Col. Morant, following the orders of their British commanders, execute Boer prisoners found wearing British khaki uniforms. The film is done in flashback from the Australians’ court martial. The trial is rigged with perjured testimony from the cynical British leadership. A realistic depiction of troops under the stress of a guerrilla struggle, and a timeless depiction of the perfidy of military leadership sacrificing subordinates for political reasons.

Another quite good movie set during Britain’s Victorian-Edwardian apex is Young Winston (1972) (And here), with Simon Ward as the youthful Winston Churchill, and Anne Bancroft and Robert Shaw in strong supporting roles as his parents, Randolph and Jennie Churchill. The film is based on, and closely follows, Churchill’s memoir, My Early Life (Mentioned in this post). The film contains, among other good moments, the British cavalry charge, at Omdurman. Churchill wisely sheathes his saber mid-charge and relies instead on a Mauser pistol to work execution upon various sword-wielding Sudanese.

The preliminary to the Sudan campaign is depicted in the movie Khartoum (1966), which has some good mass-battle scenes, including some footage nicked from the 1939 Four Feathers. Khartoum stars Charleton Heston as “Chinese” Gordon, and Laurence Olivier in an over-the-top performance as the Mahdi, spiritual leader of a howling mob of Muslim dervishes brandishing long, sharp knives. I saw this movie as a child. I was traumatized by the Mahdi’s howling ululations when he is presented with Gordon’s severed head. That scene remains one of my most horrid childhood memories.

Finally, Errol Flynn’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) is a nice period piece, with its unabashedly pro-British Empire slant, a very dashing Flynn, with his usual female lead, the reliable Olivia De Havilland. A somewhat slow pace is redeemed by the terrific cavalry charge at the end: “cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them, cannon before them, volleyed and thundered.” Into the valley of death they rode, and of course Flynn goes down fighting.

I could have added many more films to this list. The British Empire will, in addition, I am sure, inspire many movies in the future. So many episodes deserve the full-blown cinematic treatment. What is probably too much to hope for is that the film-makers will downplay the ideological preaching, and try to show the people, conquerors and conquered and bystanders, as they understood themselves, not as symbols in our current ideological and political struggles.

6 thoughts on “War Movies V: The Four Feathers and Others Set in the British Empire”

  1. I can’t believe you left out The Man Who Would Be King (1975), beautifully adapted from the story by Rudyard Kipling and starring Sean Connery & Michael Caine.

    The story is a metaphor for colonialism as practiced by the British all across South Asia, at least as Kipling saw and experienced it. It still has lessons to remind us of, though I don’t believe current American policy in South Asia parallels the British Empire, despite the Saudi ambassador’s warning in a recent speech that Americans need to “read their Kipling.” The British Empire was first and foremost about profit and American foreign policy is first and foremost about political change. An excellent movie and well worth renting.

  2. I agree with Michael on TMWWBK, fantastic movie.

    Last year I half-consciously picked up the Khartoum DVD for 5$ at the supermarket, and I really liked it. Heston isn’t too horribly cardboard in his acting, and Laurence Olivier’ Mahdi is pretty damned entertaining.

    It has all the usual historical film flaws (main characters who never actually met getting together for a conference, for instance), but in general it does a pretty good job of telling the story of the Mahdi rebellion and how half-assed British colonialism really was.

    Don’t forget the portrayal of Gladstone, and how his failure to support Gordon lead to the collapse of his second ministry.

    Good movie, screaming ululations of decapitation aside.

  3. Michael, I mentioned the short story, here. Agreed, a terrific movie. But there are many others I could have included — The Guns at Batasi, Gunga Din, Lawrence of Arabia and Kim all come to mind. Searching “British Empire Films” on Google produced this list. And here is Amazon’s British Empire Theme DVD list. Some interesting stuff on this list, too. It leaves out a lot and includes some things that don’t belong. I discussed my favorite movie, period, The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, here. That has a great line about the empire. Someone expresses regret that the Colonel’s wife died in a foreign land, and he harrumphs and says “she died in Jamaica.” Part of the Empire, hence not foreign.

    Captain, I think Heston is a better actor than he is currently given credit for. I don’t remember the portrayal of Gladstone. I saw it so long ago that the political stuff made no impression on me. Olivier seemed to be having a lot of fun being the Mahdi.

  4. I’ve seen Zulu a few times on AMC. Incredible battle scenes and a very moving, effective ending.

    The movie has a unique feel to it, the Zulus portrayed without the prejudices that might have shown through in earlier decades, but without the burden of a politically correct pov of our era.

    Highly recommended.

  5. I saw Zulu many years ago and thought it was a great movie. But, wasn’t it Michael York rather than Michael Caine who was the lead in it?

    I agree with Paul regarding the impressive even-handed but non-PC presentation of the two sides.

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