Movie Review: The Four Feathers (1939)

Daniela and I have been working our way through different movies some more, and the evolution of pacing in movies is an issue that I keep seeing pop up in some of the older movies. Today’s case in point is the 1939 film, The Four Feathers. It’s got a 7.5 on IMDB and is a good movie at heart, but it’s got several issues with pacing that really bring it down in my book, simply because film has gotten better at keeping a story going in the 80 years since this movie came out.

In the film, a man resigns his post in the army right before Britain goes back to war in the Sudan. He gives many sound reasons for wanting to be done, but he eventually admits his main one was that he was scared of going to war. Four of his friends each send him a white feather, a symbol of cowardice. He decides to earn his way back into their good graces by proving he’s courageous after all.

There are some things about the movie I really enjoy. In the course of the film, one of his friends goes blind, and the main character ends up saving his life, but never reveals it was him who saved it. There’s a scene where this is revealed, and it’s really moving and well done. You can also tell that a lot of effort went in to making the film as realistic and engaging as possible (for it’s time.)

But there are a slew of things that drag the film down. Long stretches where they do little other than show riders on horses racing to battle, or people pulling ships up a river. Some of the characters’ actions just aren’t well conveyed, so they do things that don’t make sense, which can make them come across as dense. These days, action movies have learned enough about how to tell a compelling story that they’d be able to show the same things happening in a fraction of the time, leaving more room for real tension and suspense to flourish.

I’ve seen the movie was remade with Heath Ledger in the starring role, and I think I’m going to have to give it a try, just to see what they did with it. I know very often people accuse Hollywood of making pointless remakes, but there are definitely films where a remake can bring a movie to a new audience successfully.

But how do you review a film like this one? To me, I have to stick with using the same metric I use to evaluate any movie. Grading it on a curve doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Yes, it took place much earlier in history, and so it’s at a disadvantage of sorts, but it’s still just plain boring in many parts. (This is the same beef I have with Citizen Kane. I can recognize the huge influence it played on the future of film while at the same time admitting it’s just not very captivating by today’s standards.) In the end, I gave this one a 6.5/10, which was a let down. I’d seen it before years ago, and I remembered it being much better.


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