Wednesday 14 October 2015

The Four Feathers, the British Colonial Film and Culturally Specific Dramatic Irony

(A paper given at the Screening Politics conference at Pitt University, Pittsburgh, on the 2nd October, 2015)

I’d like to talk about the 1939 British film The Four Feathers, its status as part of the genre of the British colonial film, and particularly, the concept of culturally specific dramatic irony.

To elaborate on that a little, ‘dramatic irony’ in this context refers to the device whereby the audience’s knowledge is greater than that of the characters, and the production of dramatic tension through this. Period dramas, especially those that feature historical events or real people, inevitably create dramatic irony. To take a very obvious example, our view of the lovers in Titanic (1997) is coloured by an awareness that the ship’s going to sink.

Culturally specific dramatic irony is a concept that occurred to me quite recently, when I watching the show Memphis. In case you don’t know, this is a musical written by David BrIan and Joe DiPietro that ran on Broadway between 2009 and 2012, and which has been running in London since last year. It’s about a 1950s white disc jockey in Memphis who starts playing black music, loosely based on the real-life DJ Dewey Phillips. Towards the end of the show, he’s being considered for a job presenting his music on television. A TV executive says to him (I won’t attempt the accent) ‘It’s between two people; you, and a boy called Richard Clark..’.

In London, that line doesn’t get a laugh – most people over there, unless they’re music geeks (like me), haven’t heard of Dick Clark. Over here, where he was a television fixture for three decades, the effect is very different – the audience knows from that moment that the protagonist is doomed. The line depends on a piece of information that is possessed by audiences in the United States, but not (on the whole) in the UK.

I want to apply this concept to the 1939 film of The Four Feathers, which is an adaptation of a 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason. The story of one of serial revenge, like a less bloody version of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s the story of Harry Feversham, a young British Officer from a military family, who resigns his commission the day before his regiment is due to go and fight in the South Sudan in 1882. Three of his colleagues and his fiancée, Ethne, send him white feathers, the mark of a coward. Feversham travels to the Sudan and returns three of the feathers, performing great deeds of heroism in the process, and returns to the UK, where he gives Ethne back her feather, and the two of them get married.

There are implicit references to the story of Ulysses (Feversham’s dog is the first creature to recognise him when he returns) and explicit ones to that of Hamlet, to whom Feversham is compared by Lieutenant Sutch, a friend of his late mother:

‘Did you ever read ‘Hamlet’? he asked.
‘Of course’ said Harry, in reply.
‘Ah, but did you ever consider it? The same disability is clear in that character. The thing which he foresaw, which he thought over, whch he imagined in the act and the consequence – that he shrank from, upbraiding himself even as you have done. Yet when the moment of action comes, sharp and immediate, does he fail? No, he excels, and just by reason of that foresight.’

(A.E.W. Mason, The Four Feathers, p. 51)

The story had already been filmed three times in the silent era, most recently by Merian C. Cooper in 1929, and has beeen filmed three times since.  It’s a story with the quality of myth - any of you who know Jospeh Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces will recognise many of the features of the archetypal Hero's Journey - the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the journey to another world, and the triumphant return.  Given this, the most surprising thing about the novel is how little it's concerned with this central story.

Of the novel’s thirty-four chapters, the first six set up Feversham’s story, ending with his decision to return the four feathers (in screenwriting terms, the first act climax). Mason then spends the central section of the novel, roughly the next twenty chapters, focusing on the character of ethne, Feversham’s fiancee and her suitor Durrance, a colleague of Feversham who has been blinded in battle. Feversham returns in the final eight chapters as the protagonist, but its still Durrance who has the final words, heroically abandoning Ethne to Harry, and returning to the Sudan. To come to the novel after seeing a film version (as most modern readers surely do) is a disconcerting experience, like discovering that Homer originally wrote the Odyssey from the point of view of one of Penelope’s suitors.

The 1939 film was produced by Alexander Korda for London Film Productions, which at that time was the British equivalent of M.G.M., by which I mean that their films were prestigious, expensive, frequently set in the past, and often based on a pre-existing literary property. Korda had produced The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the one which set the template for British success at the Oscars – when the Academy honours a British film it tends to be one that includes at least two elements of Henry VIII’s combination of history, royalty and sex (or at least scandal): witness Tom Jones (1963), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and The King’s Speech (2010).

As well as being an Alexander Korda film, with all that implies, The Four Feathers is a British colonial film. Korda had already produced three examples of this genre in the ‘thirties: Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938), all directed or co-dirceted (as was The Four Feathers) by his nephew, Zoltan Korda.  Rachael Low describes these films as a British equivalent of the Western, and there’s a degree of truth to this – like Hollywood Westerns, these films mythologise landscape (both Elephant Boy and The Drum start with captions thanking the Indian rulers on whose territory they were filmed) and treat it as a sort of blank canvas on which can be played out mythic dramas of personal and national identity.

The analogy break down on two specific issues, at least as far as the three films preceding The Four Feathers are concerned. The hero of a Western, whether a rancher, an outlaw or a gunslinger, is typically a rugged individualist, defining him- (or, less often her-) self outside the system. There are exceptions, particularly films that deal with the U.S Cavalry, like They Died With Their Boots On (1941), although even in these the protagonist (in this case, Errol Flynn as General Custer) is often a maverick within the organisation. By contrast, the hero of a British colonial film tends to be an establishment figure, a military man, or (like Sanders) a Commissioner. Where the values of the Western tend to be those of the outsider, who gradually makes himself redundant as the frontier moves West, the British colonial hero already works within an institutional framework.

The second issue where these films are unlike Westerns is to do with the representation of what their makers would probably refer to as the ‘natives’. Before the ‘fifties, Hollywood westerns tend to treat Native Americans as part of the landscape, rather than active characters (again, there are exceptions). Again, by contrast, all of the films before The Four Feathers feature a character played by a top-lined non-white actor – Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River, Sabu in both Elephant Boy (where he gets the title role) and The Drum. All three films are unquestionably paternalistic in their treatment of non-white characters – both Sabu’s boyhood and Robeson’s large, slightly awkward physique contribute to a sense of the characters (and implicitly their countries) as overgrown children (I'm told that in parts of modern-day India, the name 'Sabu' is used as an insult, meaning something like 'Uncle Tom') – but it’s striking that these characters are the ones that carry the burden of their stories.

The Four Feathers is an exception to both of these rules, and is thus more like a Western than any other British colonial film – its protagonist is an outsider, and white.  Indeed, there are hardly any named non-white characters in the film – the most significant one, the Mahdi, is played by the white, Scottish actor John Laurie (familiar to British people my age as Private Fraser from Dad's Army).

The screenplay for The Four Feathers was written by R.C.Sherriff, who is better known as a playwright – he wrote the classic First World War play Journey’s End (1928) – but had a long career as a screenwriter. He worked initially in the United States, working for the two most Anglophilic studios, Universal – he wrote The Invisible Man (1933) – and later M.G.M. – Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and later in the U.K. where his last significant credit was for The Dam Busters (1955).  His archive, kept at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, contains two drafts of the screenplay, and I'm going to be referring mostly to the first of these.

Sherriff makes many changes in Mason’s novel. Like the writers of almost every film version, he alters the name of the protagonist from Feversham to Faversham – it’s possible that when you actually have to say it, the echo of ‘feathers’ was a little too on-the-nose – and changes the focus, so that Faversham is much more the protagonist. Most significantly, he changes the historical period.

Mason’s novel is very specific in terms of its location in British military history. We’re told that Feversham’s father was a General, a veteran of the Crimean war, and was invalided out of the services on June 15th 1855, the day of the Battle of the Redan, and also the day that Harry was born. The campaign that the adult Harry and his colleagues are going to fight in is he 1882 Sudan campaign, a notoriously unsuccessful campaign that led, in 1883, to the defeat of Hicks Pasha by the Mahdi, the only time in African colonial history that a European power was defeated by an African leader. Although the book’s original readers will have been aware of the ultimate success of the Sudanese campaign, and the decisive British victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, the book ends with that event in the far future.

Sherriff changes the dates significantly - the film starts with the death of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1887, an event that coincides with Harry Faversham’s tenth birthday, and ends ten years later, with Harry playing a significant part in the victory at the Battle of Omdurman. The story thus becomes one of redemption, both for Harry and for the British army. To use Joseph Campbell's terms, Sherriff changes the story from a fairy tale to a myth:

‘Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical macrocosmic triumph. Whereas the former – the younger or despised child who becomes the master of extraordinary powers – prevails over his personal oppressors, the latter brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole.’

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. pp. 37-8)

Sherriff’s other changes emphasise this linking of the domestic and political. In Mason’s original novel, General Feversham, Harry’s father, is still alive at the time of his resignation of his commission (rather improbably, he continues to pay Harry’s allowance during his adventures in the Sudan). In the film, his death provides the motivation for Harry’s resignation. Sherriff makes this explicit in the first draft version of the screenplay:

‘I should have taken this action months ago – when my father died. I accepted a Commission for his sake, because all his family were soldiers. When my father died, my duty towards him was done. […] When my father died I took over an estate on the verge of ruin because every man of my family has neglected it to fight in India and Africa – in every country but his own. If I do my job here I may save my home – with a hundred good farms and a hundred good men who are starving through my family’s neglect. If I go to Egypt I shall be away for years and the ruin will be complete.’

The finished film thus conflates Harry’s Hamlet-like desire to placate a dead father with a redemption of the British military, from the failures of the Crimean War and the death of General Gordon, to the successes of Omdurman and the triumph of Lord Kitchener.

This is made explicit in the final scene of the screenplay’s first draft. Faversham has returned three feathers to his colleagues, and has to return the fourth to his fiancée (called Daphne in this draft) who ask the same question that the audience must be thinking: ‘What deed of reckless daring are you going to do to make me take back my feather?’. The answer comes when her father, General Burroughs, (played in the finished film by C. Aubrey Smith, the definition of an old buffer) starts talking about the failings of the modern army.

General Burroughs – you’re a great soldier and I acknowledge it; but let me tell you, General, here and now – that the wars you fought were garden parties compared with ours! The reason you never got any breakfast was because your organisation was rotten and your sanitary arrangements so bad that the maggots got your breakfast before you got a chance! The reasons your battles went on for three weeks was because both sides only had three cannon balls between them and you had to go and find them before you could fire them back again! Your feather, Daphne!

Harry holds out the fourth feather to Daphne. She takes it and holds his hand in hers.

The General is too astonished to say a word.


This speech neatly ties up several of the script’s themes – it marks Harry’s final act of courage, finally standing up to the military generation that had also included his father, winning the hand (literally) of Daphne and establishing the superiority of the modern army over that of General Burroughs’ generation. This works on two levels, historically, which brings us neatly back to my original point about culturally specific dramatic irony. Historically, the speech draws on the audience’s awareness of the Crimean war, a notoriously under-prepared and poorly equipped campaign, which is contrasted with the successes of the 1897 campaign.

In terms of the 1930s, the speech also carries a subtextual contrast between the army of the First World War (which Sherriff had portrayed in Journey’s End) and that of 1939.  The film was released not long before the start of the Second World War, and is clearly aimed at both appeasers in Britain and isolationists in the United States. This is less explicit in the finished film than in Sherriff’s first version of the screenplay, which opens in the House of Commons where the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, is arguing against sending further aid to the besieged General Gordon: If we send an army we engage ourselves in a senseless war of no concern to us […] Let the Egyptians work out their own destiny, and let the British Empire mind its own business.!’

The historical parallels were clearly seen at the time, particularly in Britain. At the film’s premiere, A.E.W. Mason, the author of the original novel, made a curtain speech. The London Evening Standard reported on this in an article headlines ‘Fine Film of British Heroism’:
“‘There is a peculiar constancy and endurance in the English character’ said Mr. Mason, implying that the picture had demonstrated those qualities.
‘And if the occasion should arise they will be demonstrated again.’
The audience cheered.”
(This speech is made more remarkable by the fact that Mason was no red-faced Jingoist - he had sat as a Liberal M.P. between 1906 and 1910.)

Sherriff’s screenplay, by a number of means, including the switch of period, makes the audience draw two sets of parallels – one between the Crimean and First World Wars, and one between the Second Sudanese campaign and the war that was on the horizon. Faversham doesn’t just redeem himself – he redeems the British Army.

Although this historical context isn't available to the modern viewer, the film has gained a third parallel since it's release, in terms of the writing of Sherriff himself, which also tells a story of redemption of the military, starting, ironically enough, with Journey’s End and finishing with the The Dam Busters (1955), an unambiguous celebration of military heroism, and, as a World War Two film, part of the genre that arguably took over from the Colonial Film as the British Western.  

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