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The Four Feathers is a 1902 adventure novel by Britishmarker writer A.E.W. Mason that has inspired many films of the same title.

Plot summary

The novel tells the story of Britishmarker officer, Harry Faversham, who resigns his commission from his regiment just prior to Sir Garnet Wolseley's 1882 expedition to Egyptmarker to suppress the rising of Urabi Pasha. He is faced with censure from three of his comrades for cowardice, signified by the delivery of three white feathers to him, from Captain Trench and Lieutenants Castleton and Willoughby, and the loss of the support of his fiancée, Ethne Eustace, who presents him with the fourth feather. His best friend in the regiment, Captain Durrance becomes his rival for Ethne.

Talking with Lieutenant Sutch, a friend of his father, an imposing retired general, Harry questions his own true motives, and resolves to redeem himself by whatever means necessary, travelling on his own to Egypt and Sudanmarker, where in 1882 Muhammad Ahmed proclaimed himself the Mahdi (Guided One) and raised a Holy War. On January 26, 1885, his forces, at the time called Dervishes, captured Khartoummarker and killed its British governor, General Charles George Gordon. It is mainly in the eastern Sudan, where the British and Egyptians held Suakinmarker, that the action takes place over the next six years. Durrance is blinded by sunstroke and invalided home. Castleton is reported killed at Tamai where a British square is briefly broken. Harry's first success is with Willoughby, by recovering lost letters of Gordon. He is aided by a Sudanese Arab, Abou Fatma. Later, disguised as a mad Greek musician, Harry gets imprisoned in Omdurmanmarker, where he rescues the now Colonel Trench, who had been captured on a reconnaissance mission, and they escape.

Returned to England, Harry has his honour restored and returned the feathers to others. Trench admits he instigated the feathers. Durrance yields Ethne, and travels to Germany to seek a cure for his blindness. Ethne and Harry wed. The story is rich in characters and sub-plots, which the filmed versions perforce trim, along with making major changes in the story line, with the best known 1939 version centered on the 1898 campaign and battle of Omdurman, only hinted as a future event in the novel.

Film, TV, and theatrical adaptations

This novel's story has been filmed several times with all films retaining much of the same storyline (i.e. young Feversham disgracing himself by quitting the army followed by his redemption of manhood by various deeds in the Sudan). The enemy forces, Islamic rebels called Dervishes, of The Mahdi, are the same, as are the geographic settings, Englandmarker, Egyptmarker and the Sudanmarker). The films also feature a British square broken, only mentioned in the novel in a battle in which the square recovered. The various film versions differ in the precise historical context. For example, the celebrated 1939 cinematic version, produced by Alexander Korda and Ralph Richardson its chief star, takes place during the 1898 campaign, with its climax the Battle of Omdurman when British soldiers wore khaki uniforms. The more recent 2002 version with Heath Ledger takes place during the 1884-1885 campaign, when some British still wore red coats and when some of the novel's action occurs, and features the Battle of Abu Klea, January 17, 1885, fought by the Desert Column that included the Camel Corps dressed in gray jackets and khaki trousers, but not in red coats. While the square was briefly broken, unlike the film version, the British won the battle, but their advance was delayed. The battle is more accurately treated in the movie Khartoum (1966). In the 1929 silent version of The Four Feathers, a square of Highlanders is broken, but saved by Feversham and the Egyptian garrison of a besieged fort. Set in the 1880s, its great moment comes when wild hippos in a river attack the Dervishes pursuing Feversham. The many versions also differ in the racial ethnicity of the local Sudanese guide, Abou Fatma, who assists young Feversham in his desert adventure. For instance, this local guide is an Arab man in the 1977 version while he is a Black man in the 2002 version.

The various film versions are as follows:

Year Title Country Director Notes
1915 Four Feathers USA J. Searle Dawley Black-and-white, silent
1921 The Four Feathers UK René Plaissetty Roger Livesey appeared in a minor role. Black-and-white, silent.
1929 The Four Feathers USA Merian C. Cooper
Lothar Mendes
Ernest B.


Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, Clive Brook.
1939 The Four Feathers UK Zoltan Korda Starring Ralph Richardson, John Clements, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez. Considered by many to have been the best of the film versions, this was lavishly filmed in colour on many of the real African locations.
1955 Storm Over the Nile UK Terence Young, Zoltan Korda Starring Anthony Steel, James Robertson Justice, Ian Carmichael, Ronald Lewis, Michael Hordern. A low-budget color remake, using much of the location footage shot for the 1939 version of The Four Feathers, and exactly the same script - one of the few instances in which this was done.
1977 The Four Feathers UK Don Sharp Starring Robert Powell, Simon Ward, Beau Bridges, and Jane Seymour. Completely remade for a new generation (though several scenes have been inserted from the 1939 version (e.g. the troops boarding the train in London, a panorama featuring dhows on the Nile, the British army on parade) with a great deal of skill so that the lifting of these excerpts is far from obvious to those who have not seen the 1939 version), the classic tale retains its imperial stiff upper lip and Boys Own style of adventure heroics.
2002 The Four Feathers USA Shekhar Kapur Starring Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson. Made by an Indianmarker director, this version takes a revisionist stance on the original novel's themes of masculinity, empire and the clash of Western and Islamic civilisations. Unlike previous versions, this version centres its big battle scene on the 1885 Battle of Abu Klea (thirteen years before Omdurman), when British soldiers were still wearing red uniforms in the desert (although actually they already wore khaki) and the famous British square formation was supposedly broken for the first time. Oddly, in this film the British lose the battle of Abu Klea while in reality they won.

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