Monday, August 15, 2011

#583: The Four Feathers

(Zoltán Korda, 1939)

When you think of modern-day Britain - content in its declining empire status, watching the sun set ever more frequently over its dominions - it can be easy to forget that they were at one point a ruthless colonial tyrant, as jingoistic as they come. (At one point, I've been informed, they even ruled over the colonies that would become the USA - imagine that!) The Four Feathers - made just as England was entering its last great war, the one which basically ended its global reach - is a solid reminder of this shady history, a glossed-over war epic of the rah rah variety.

I don't entirely disapprove of pro-war films, but I am often surprised to encounter them, particularly those like The Four Feathers which are so cavalierly unaware of their political message. I don't think for a moment it occurred to anyone involved in the film that the viewer might initially agree with the protagonist's decision to resign from the army. Plot-wise, it seems no different than if he had committed a crime or insulted the pope. Korda's film - made the same year that Gone with the Wind bravely depicted the plight of the wealthy Southern land owner in the Civil War - operates from the basic idea that abandoning your responsibilities in war makes you a coward and denying the British Empire her rightful place as ruler over the world is the worst kind of treason.

It's not that Korda's film advocates for these positions to any large degree. The film is primarily concerned with entertaining the viewer, so it isn't especially difficult to get past its worldview (unlike, say, Blackhawk Down, which masquerades as historical journalism but only manages to set the stage for Battle: Los Angeles). The story is all rip-roaring adventure, and I do appreciate the appeal of a protagonist attempting to save the friends he wronged, delivering to them the feathers they had given him when he betrayed them. It's the kind of story Nicolas Cage could get behind, no? Still, The Four Feathers feels like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - a big budget British spectacle that's too busy being classy to say or do anything especially interesting.

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