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The Four Feathers

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The Four Feathers
The Four Feathers - 1929

Story by: A.E.W. Mason (novel)

The Four Feathers
- 1929
Directed by: Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Screenplay by: Hope Loring, Howard Estabrook

The Four Feathers - 1939
Directed by: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay by: R.C. Sherriff

The Four Feathers - 2002
Directed by: Shekhar Kapur
Screenplay by: Michael Schiffer & Hossein Amini


BP Schulberg did everything possible to elevate the artistic power of film to the level of theatre and literature. It was due to some embarrassment about working in films, and having a good deal of admiration for novel writers, that he adapted some of the best literature while VP in Charge of Production at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios. Not wanting to be considered uncultured by everyone in New York, he worked hard to make sure his films were ambitious, and reflected the high standards of those he knew might be turning their noses up at him.

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Faversham with
Colonel Trench.

Schulberg brought in Merian C. Cooper—who had previously produced two documentaries in remote parts of the world—to direct the 1929 silent version of The Four Feathers. The highly regarded novel by A.E.W. Mason had seen earlier adaptations to film, however, this is the only one known to still exist.

It was Cooper’s first purely fictional film with professional actors. Shooting in both Hollywood and the Sudan, Cooper knew how to realistically capture bold adventures on film, as he was a man who had relished extraordinary adventures in his own life. In 1916 he chased Pancho Villa back to Mexico as a member of the National Guard. In World War I he was a bomber pilot, shot down and captured by Germans. Later, he fought for the Poles against the Soviets and was shot down a second time, resulting in nine months as a POW to the Russians. Thus, a grand adventure, which questioned the courage of men found itself in his well-placed keep. His fearless and lusty personality always revealed itself in his films, and The Four Feathers was no exception.

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Hippos falling down around Faversham.

Cooper could startle viewers with his camera. To this day, some shots elicit jaw-dropping awe in their ability to put viewers under the trampling hooves of a stampede or into the mouths wild beasts. There is an unbelievable rescue sequence with monkeys and hippos that would seem to defy possibility and yet it exits—long before the days of CGI. The 1929 The Four Feathers is a difficult to find film, but a wonderful treasure if discovered. It contains surprising moments of sensitivity for such an audacious adventure. The story is set in a world where the value of man is measured by his courage to fight in war; it’s a privilege to fight, and all men should hope such privilege befalls their fate. The protagonist, Harry Faversham, played well by Richard Arlen, is set to marry his childhood sweetheart when called to duty in North Africa. He dodges, offending his military father, his friends—who are all battle-ready soldiers—and his bride-to-be, played by Fay Wray (who would go on to work with Cooper again in his better-known movie, King Kong). Abandoned by those he loves, and sent white feathers to symbolize his cowardice, he decides to travel to Africa, disguise himself as an Arab, and secretly fight for his country.

A.E.W. Mason did not invent the idea of the white feather as a coward’s gift. This was part of the culture for some time in England during the Boer Wars. The idea came from cockfights. The white feather symbolized a cock—turning tail from its enemy.

Ten years after Cooper’s film, the book was adapted again. Many silents were remade in the thirties. The art of cinema had not been improved with sound, but it had changed dramatically. Therefore, remakes were welcome. Also, without benefit of TV, many had missed these stories when told as silents.

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1939 version poster.

The Four Feathers can be counted as another one of the many masterpieces of 1939. It was a British film company this time—run by Alexander Korda—that brought about the return of The Four Feathers. Alexander’s brother Zoltan directed, and this Technicolor version of The Four Feathers stands up superbly today as a clear inspiration to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Shot again in the Sudan, a burning sun torments poor fighting souls like an angry eye of God. Legions of camelback riding warriors charge over miles of desert into battle—glorious to look at, but painful in its complex portrait of man. The story has essentially remained the same. The differences that exist do little to alter the primary theme of questioning the call to war.

Like before, the main character, Harry Faversham, comes from a long line of military heroes and is emotionally burdened by his father’s unwavering expectation that his son follow in his footsteps. In the silent version, when the father learns of his son’s resignation from duty, Harry is handed a revolver with the clear insinuation that, in the face of such shame, he commit suicide. In the Korda brothers version, the father has passed away before the film starts, but Harry’s father-in-law (played by the ever-reliable C. Aubrey Smith) was a comrade of Harry’s father and has the same expectations on young Harry. The idea of the father as former soldier, following in the footsteps of his father, who followed in the footsteps of the father before that, is a wonderful idea—not only in that it puts such pressure on poor Harry, but it also reminds audiences that there has always been war.

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John Clements as
Harry Faversham.

The cast is perfect. John Clements reels viewers into his emotional turmoil while he is still in England and then seems almost a different actor when disguised in Africa. Ralph Richardson offers the perfect counterpart with his easy acceptance of sacrifice. Incidentally, Richardson would go on to play a role in Khartoum in 1966, which fits historically as a prequel to this The Four Feathers, as this version begins with the death of General Gordon. The reward for having redeemed himself is a little greater for Harry in this version. The scars of sacrifice are a little less apparent (perhaps without coincidence, the year was 1939). It is to the earlier, silent version’s credit that all is not as well resolved when Harry returns home from North Africa—which is not to reveal the outcome of the plot; The Four Feathers is not so simplistic a story as to have a resolution where all ends happy. Both films take viewers on an extraordinary adventure. Both films ask questions along the way. Both films leave viewers torn by the complex nature of man and the terrible trials faced in this world. Anyone who believes that The Four Feathers story is about a coward turned hero is engaging in oversimplification.

On the surface, the Technicolor version may seem to offer more of an unwavering devotion to the British Empire, but the centerpiece to the film shows a coward—Harry Faversham—leading a blind man away from battle. The coward is a redeemed coward, but a self-proclaimed coward nonetheless, while the blind man never once questioned his duty. Earlier in the film, Harry’s war-loving father-in-law gets teary-eyed watching soldiers march off to war, showing he is not some brute who relishes death and dying, but just believes passionately in the honor of fighting for his country. The story in both films is executed with tremendous sympathy for the coward without degrading those who want to fight down to the level of barbarians. In other words, there is no ham-fisted condescension which tries to bully viewers into believing one man’s path is absolutely right while another’s is absolutely wrong. Both of these versions of Mason’s novel are great cinematic triumphs of adventure while also heartbreaking views of humanity.

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2002 version poster.

In 2002, The Four Feathers returned (again) to movie theatres—sort of. It is exactly where the previous versions succeeded in resonating most effectively that this one fails. Whereas previous versions offered sympathetic portraits of those who answered the call to duty, as well as the one who resisted it, this version tips the balance necessary for intense emotional conflict by instilling more wisdom than guilt in the Harry Faversham character.

Harry’s best friend is the fearless Jack Durrance. Despite their close friendship, Durrance has always supported the story’s central conflict by illustrating the mindset of one who walks in line with expectations. He is unflappably patriotic and considers it a great honor to carry out his duty. In earlier adaptations of the story, a white feather from him was perhaps the most devastating. However, in this most recent version, Durrance actually supports Harry and offers no white feather.

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Heath Ledger as
Harry Faversham.

Motivational problems hinder the film as well. In leaving out Faversham’s history of multi-generational military service, the pressure on him to not resign his commission is diminished. In fact, there was no internal conflict about his service—until the announcement of the Sudan mission. In previous versions, the news came heartbreakingly because we already knew Faversham was conflicted about going.

Clearly the effort on the part of Indian director Shekkar Kapur was sincere. Great care went into the look of the 2002 film. The end result is thoughtful, yet unfocused. You wish BP Schulberg could have been around to be potentially embarrassed. Schulberg could have warned Kapur against trying to provide answers to impossible questions. He would have reminded him that, in art—agendas have nowhere near the power of ambiguity.
(Stephen Jared)


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