In Retrospect: Finding a Third Way: The Four Feathers (1939)

C.D. Calderon, Staff Writer

Harry Faversham has a problem. As a peer of the realm, growing up during the reign of Queen Victoria, certain obligations are expected of him. This means he is saddled with the pressure of “great expectations”, all of which are meant to bring honor to his family name and glory to the British Empire, hanging over his head, like a ton of bricks. It also doesn’t that his family bloodline has long a history of giving their lives to this very same cause. The problem for Harry isn’t one of cowardice. If it comes down to a question of a combat, and the cause behind it is just, then show Harry an army and he’ll fall in.

Harry’s problem is that he is aware on both a conscious and sub-conscious level that both the British Spirit, in particular the Age of the Great World Empires, are all showing signs of decays, and are starting to come to an end. He can see it just about everywhere he goes. It’s in the morning and evening papers which in jingoistic tones of keeping the flag flying. It’s the faces of all the lines of inexperienced men who dive head into enlistment without any necessary preparation for the hardships they’ll have to endure. You can’t send a soldier into war and expect him to hold himself together unless he’s been properly trained for the job!

Most of all, he seems aware of an Era coming to an end in the talk of his father and his friends. Men like Colonel Burroughs talk about the glories of the past in a way that makes you aware that it’s pretty much all they have left. There is no effort to relate that past to the present conflicts and concerns. Indeed, there is no effort to bridge the generation gap at all. This results in the problems faced by the next Edwardian generation. People like Ethne (June Duprez), Harry’s fiancé may recognize the trap they are caught in. The problem is, if life never presents the possibility of an alternative, then all she is left with is the burden of “soldiering on”.

Despite his misgivings, Harry is in no position of power to influence anything. So he’s not exactly surprised when reserves are called up to join Lord Kitchener in expelling a Caliph and his army from Egypt. The problem, however, is that instead of liberating a people and leaving it at that, the army is ultimately there to replace the Caliphate with its own form of imperialism. The wiser course would be to simply provide the people of Egypt with all the necessary resources to first depose their aggressor, and then provide enough resources for them to make their own way.

That would be the logical military course of action, however Britain regards Egypt as its colony, and will not be deterred. Harry (John Clements) is able to ignore all this grandstanding in a “stupid Egyptian adventure”, even when Capt. John Durrance and two other friends leave behind a collection of three feathers (a symbol of cowardice). It is when confronted by Ethne’s inability to bridge the same gap that he has that starts to drive him into action. Ethne ultimately agrees with Harry’s position, yet even she admits to being the product of a certain way of life. It is, as she points out, all she has ever known, or been allowed to know. In response to this, Harry adds a fourth feather for Ethne. Her dilemma is what starts him on his own Egyptian adventure. What distinguishes his escapade from that of Durrance, is that Harry smuggles himself to Egypt in disguise less for the sake of fighting, nor is he in it for the Empire, but for a Third reason.

The key scene in the Korda Bros. 1939 epic takes place right at the beginning. During a dinner scene, Colonel Burroughs brags about a heroic charge he led at the Battle of Balaclava, a story that is repeated several times in the course of the movie. This story is important as it displays both the military fervor of Victorian Imperialism, and also serves to highlight the shortcomings of such an approach to military leadership. As the viewer listens to Burroughs express his belief that all a man needs is backbone, and the rest will take care of itself, it is hard not to be reminded of the example set by men like George Washington. The First American president was a soldier like Burroughs. What makes the difference is that Washington gained enough experience of life in the British army to understand both its strengths, and its strategic weaknesses. Washington wouldn’t have liked a man like Burroughs. He’d have been put in mind of too many of the short-sighted, arrogant officers responsible for him wasting both lives and manpower, and then leaving subordinates like him to take the blame. It was this faulty approach to soldiering by men like Burroughs that led Washington first to buck within the ranks, and the to break rank completely and help form a different type of army.

Like Washington, Faversham is able a Third Way out of this dilemma. He goes to Egypt expecting that he’ll have to clean up the mistakes of Imperialism, and he is soon proven right. First, he gets a taste of African life under the English whip. Then, Durrance’s refusal to back away regroup for a more strategic victory first causes him to go blind from heatstroke, then to lose a battle that results in the capture of the two men who sent the other feathers. It is Harry’s pursuit of a Third Way of doing things that powers his trek through desert towards these fallen comrades. It is also this idea of finding alternative ways and solutions that is really what makes The Four Feathers work as a movie.