An oft-remade film that tells a story of heroism
The plot centers around Harry Faversham, a young British military officer who, lacking the stomach for war, resigns his commission the night before his unit is to be shipped out to battle in the Sudan in 1898. Disappointed, each of his three closest friends and fellow officers present him with a white feather as a symbol of his cowardice. His fiance, upon learning of his decision, also presents him with a feather before breaking off the engagement. Shamed by his own actions, Harry embarks for the Sudan on his own, and, disguised as a mute Sudanese tribesman, sneaks behind enemy lines and attempts to rescue each of his captured friends and thereby regain his honor.
Although versions were made before and after it, the seminal print of the story is British director Zoltan Korda's 1939 version. Filmed on location in the deserts of the Sudan, with thousands of extras (including Bisharin tribespeople-- Kipling's "Fuzzy Wuzzies"-- who had fought in the actual battle of Omdurman being recreated onscreen), Korda created epic action sequences that were, to audiences in 1939, the equivalent of the vivid combat scenes in Saving Private Ryan sixty years later. Korda's dusty and furious desert melees are used to this day as stock footage by directors looking to represent desert warfare in colonial Africa.
The Four Feathers wears its heart on its sleeve: Harry's initial misgivings about combat are given short-shrift, and his transformation from coward to hero is non-existent. But the movie, based on the 1901 novel by A.E.W. Mason, isn't about introspection. It's an action-adventure epic, and it plays like one, with furious battles and tense moments. It's visuals are so lush and its characters so one-dimensional that it stands as a classic example of what could be called "war porn"; the kind of movie that 10-year old boys go to see, and leave the theater with dreams of being Generals and fighting wars.
They don't make 'em like that anymore.