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Fall Sneaks

'The Four Feathers' was a saga of Victorian manners. A young Hollywood cast subtly changes the meaning.

September 08, 2002|DAVID FREEMAN

"The Four Feathers," A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel of cowardice and redemption, has been the source of at least five movies (three of them silent) and a 1977 TV miniseries. The 1939 version with Ralph Richardson seems to have a permanent place in the movie memory of the middle-aged.

It would be hard to overstate the affection that cinema buffs and Anglophiles hold for "The Four Feathers." Now, a new production from Paramount and Miramax, with young Hollywood stars, will open on Sept. 20. In the various versions, the story remains essentially this: In Victorian England, a young regimental officer, Harry Feversham, the only son of a distinguished military family and engaged to the beautiful Ethne, is to be sent to fight in the Sudan. Possibly out of fear and possibly out of a sense of obligation to Ethne, Harry resigns his commission. Three fellow officers send him white feathers, symbols of cowardice. Ethne gives him a fourth and breaks off the engagement. Harry is disgraced, and to restore his honor, he secretly follows his regiment to the Sudan, where his friend and fellow officer Jack Durrance fights bravely and loses his sight. Both men are in love with Ethne.

This story is finally and irreducibly about Englishness. A man is accused of cowardice and sacrifices years of his life enduring astonishing hardships to make amends. Other cultures have had elaborate codes of chivalry, certainly, but in matters of honor no one outdoes the English officer class of the Victorian age. Mason's novel is an adventure story, but it's also, crucially, a novel of manners and codes of behavior. Someone, it seems, is always sacrificing him or herself. People do the most unpleasant and inconvenient things possible out of an uncompromising idea of what is right. Unless you believe that Harry, Ethne and Jack are operating under ironclad social rules, then little of what happens makes much psychological sense.

During the period of this story, the English were in the Sudan, an enormous and unforgiving place that shares a border with Egypt, to look after their Egyptian interests. There was much talk of spreading God's word, but in the end, the English were protecting the Suez Canal, which gave them control of the shipping lanes as well as access to Arabia and the northern route to India. In modern times, the U.S. talks about spreading democracy to countries in the Middle East, though our deeper interest is its oil.

The most distinguished non-fictional participant in the Sudan campaign was Lt. Winston Churchill, who was a cavalry officer attached to the 21st Lancers at the battle of Omdurman in 1898. That battle, for the city that also figures in "The Four Feathers," has often been called the British Army's last cavalry charge. Churchill was both a fighting officer and a war correspondent, filing dispatches from the front, an arrangement unthinkable today. The following year, he published his account of the campaign as "The River War."

The long-standing English fascination with Araby is reflected in their cinema. The greatest of all the Brits-in-the-sand movies is "Lawrence of Arabia." Another example, closer to the events of "The Four Feathers," is "Khartoum," the 1966 movie of Gen. "Chinese" Gordon's battle with the Mahdi, the desert leader, a Muslim fanatic whose views of the West seem out of today's headlines. Gordon was a hero of the time who died rather than leave Khartoum. He was something of a fanatic himself. His reputation suffered after Lytton Strachey, in "Eminent Victorians," debunked Gordon's heroism as failed political maneuvering. In "Khartoum," Laurence Olivier, in bronze makeup, plays the Mahdi and Charlton Heston is the general. Ralph Richardson, a generation after he played Jack Durrance in the 1939 "Four Feathers," is Gordon's nemesis, Prime Minister William Gladstone. Once again, Richardson walks off with every scene he's in.

I don't mean to suggest that the 1939 film is a masterpiece. It's the sort of English movie in which all the older men look like C. Aubrey Smith. One of them actually is C. Aubrey Smith. The picture was made by the Korda brothers--Alexander produced, Zoltan directed and Vincent designed it. It's a period piece, but it is emotionally true to its subject matter. It had something of a cultural impact. As late as the 1960s, comedian Don Adams was getting laughs imitating Richardson in the Sudan in a comic pastiche of English imperial war movies.

The new production of "The Four Feathers," directed by Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") from an adaptation by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, is lavish and scrupulously mounted. Every costume and military operation feels authentic, and it's closer to Mason's novel than the 1939 version.

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