Four Feathers (1939): Korda’s Spectacular Adventure, Starring Ralph Richardson, John Clements, June Duprez, C. Aubrey Smith

This handsomely made British adventure movie was produced by Alexander Korda, directed by his brother Zoltan, and designed by his other brother Vincent.

Grade: A- (****1/2* out of *****)

Four Feathers
Four Feathers 1939.jpg

original 1939 movie poster

It starred John Clements, Ralph Richardson, June Duprez, and C. Aubrey Smith.

Setting and Premise:

Set during the reign of Queen Victoria, it tells the story of a man accused of cowardice.

John Clements id declared a coward and thus given the feathers as a symbol of cowardice, when he decides not to fight in the Sudan war. Later on, however, he disguises himself as a native and redeem himself by saving his blind fighter (played by Ralph Richardson).


The tale has been filmed as a silent in 1921, then remade in 1929 by producer David O. Selznick, then remade again by Zoltan Korda himself in 1955, under the title of “Storm Over the Nile”(using footage from the 1939 production).

Narrative Structure:

In 1895, the Royal North Surrey Regiment is called to join the army of Sir Herbert Kitchener in the Mahdist War against the forces of the Khalifa (John Laurie).

Forced into army career by family tradition and fearful he might prove a coward in battle, Lieutenant Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission. As a result, his three friends and fellow officers, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) and Lieutenants Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Willoughby (Jack Allen), show their contempt by each sending him a white feather attached to a calling card.

When his fiancée Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) says nothing in his defense, he demands a fourth from her. She refuses, but he plucks one from her fan.

Harry confides in an old mentor and former surgeon in his father’s regiment, Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley), that he did act out of cowardice and must attempt to redeem himself.

He departs for Egypt, where he disguises himself as despised mute Sangali native, with the help of Dr. Harraz (Henry Oscar), to hide lack of knowledge of local languages.

Faversham (left) guiding the blind Durrance through the desert to safety

Durrance is ordered to take his company into the desert to lure the Khalifa’s army away from the Nile. However, he is blinded by sunstroke and the company is overrun. He is left for dead on the battlefield, while Burroughs and Willoughby are captured.

The disguised Faversham takes the delirious Durrance across the desert to the vicinity of a British fort.

Six months later, the blind Durrance returns to England, and Ethne agrees to marry him. At dinner, he pulls out a keepsake letter from Ethne, the only thing he had in his wallet during the “robbery.” A white feather and his card drop out, revealing that his rescuer was Harry Faversham.

Burroughs and Willoughby are thrown into dungeon with other enemies of the Khalifa. Still playing the addled Sangali, Faversham reveals his identity and organizes an escape.

Durrance learns of Faversham’s deeds from the newspaper, and realizes it was Harry who saved him. He dictates a letter to Ethne, releasing her from engagement on the false pretext of going to Germany for treatment to restore his eyesight.

Harry attends a dinner with his friends and Ethne, where General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith) acknowledges that Harry has forced all of them to take back their feathers—all except Ethne.

Faversham makes her take back her white feather by interrupting the General in the midst of his war story to correct his embellishments. In the end, Burroughs, irritated, complains that he will never be able to tell that story again.

This version is widely considered the best of all the numerous film adaptations of the novel due to its lavish production, especially the spectacular cinematography. It was shot on location in the Sudan in Technicolor.

The film played at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals.  It was one of the most popular films of the year in Britain.


John Clements as Harry Faversham
Ralph Richardson as Captain John Durrance
C. Aubrey Smith as General Burroughs
June Duprez as Ethne Burroughs
Allan Jeayes as General Faversham
Jack Allen as Lieutenant Thomas Willoughby
Donald Gray as Peter Burroughs
Frederick Culley as Dr Sutton
Clive Baxter as Young Harry Faversham
Robert Rendel as Colonel
Archibald Batty as Adjutant
Derek Elphinstone as Lieutenant Parker
Hal Walters as Joe
Norman Pierce as Sergeant Brown
Henry Oscar as Dr. Harraz
John Laurie as the Khalifa Abdullah


Directed by Zoltan Korda
Written by R. C. Sherriff, Lajos Bíró, Arthur Wimperis, based on The Four Feathers, 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason
Produced by Alexander Korda
Cinematography Georges Perinal, Osmond Borradale (Color process Technicolor)
Edited by Henry Cornelius
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Production company: London Films

Distributed by United Artists

Release dates: April 20, 1939 (UK); August 4, 1939 (U.S.)

Running time: 130 minutes

Nominations: 1

Cinematography (color): Georges Perinal and Osmond Borradale

Oscar Awards: None

 Oscar Context:

The winners of the Cinematography Oscar were Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan for Gone With the Wind.