The Four Feathers (1939) ****

After I had written my review of East of Sudan, I discovered the action scenes that open the picture were filched from Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers (1939) so, out of curiosity rather than intent to stray from my designated decade, I took a look to see how much had been stolen and, to my surprise, kept on watching.

Setting aside the outdated attitudes, this is a pretty amazing picture to have come out of Britain at a time when color was in its infancy and when the Brits were not known for producing watchable historical epics with full-blown battles and thousands of extras on a desert location. Released on the eve of the Second World War, it also takes a remarkably sympathetic view of conscientious objectors. The story mostly concerns the fall of Khartoum (1885) and then a decade later events surrounding the Battle of Omdurman (1898).

Advert that appeared in American trade magazine “Box Office” in 1939.

Story concerns Harry Faversham (John Clements), pacifist scion of a military family who, having being called into war, tears up his commission and is branded a coward by three army friends and by implication his fiancée Ethne (June Duprez), daughter of a general (hence the four white feathers). Eventually, Faversham determines to make amends and, donning a disguise, spies on the enemy, enduring endless hardship and torture before finally rescuing his friends and contributing to the battle. While it all sounds too stiff-upper-lip for its own good, it’s still quite a feat of direction, tracking cameras measuring the battle charges, the enemy racing forward on thousands of camels, the traditional British square reminiscent of Waterloo  holding firm. While Korda lacks David Lean’s visual flair, and Miklos Rozsa’s score too often intrudes on intimate moments, there are still plenty of stunning sequences, boats being towed up the Nile by slaves on shore, the prison sequences, the destruction of the arsenal, the blaze of color on military parade and ballroom, and the sheer wonder at the desert and an innate cinematic understanding of its perils.

Ralph Richardson steals the show as an officer blinded by the sun in the desert and there are a couple of good twists at the end, the fiancée realizing that she, too, was guilty of immoral act in branding Faversham a coward because he objected to the senselessness of war, and a crusty old general of Crimean vintage getting his come-uppance.

It’s always difficult to come to a proper assessment of the 1930s British movie, since so many of the voices sound upper class and the directors lack the skills and understanding of pace of their American counterparts, while the actors too often fall short of Hollywood standards. This was the year of Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights, for example, and no British picture came close to that quartet, but this is an exceptionally decent effort especially in terms of historical detail. It was a commercial and critical success at the time (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Oscar nomination for cinematography) and more recently reappraised by Criterion.

Pharaoh/Faraon (1966) ****

I had been familiar with Polish film Pharoah (1966) from a striking cover of British movie magazine Films and Filming and surprised at coming across the film while browsing YouTube I began watching without realizing there were no subtitles. I was so mesmerized by the visuals and the stunning camerawork that I could not stop watching.

There are as many versions of the Jerzy Kawalerowicz picture as director’s cuts of Blade Runner. The original clocked in at three hours. The version given limited showings in European countries was hacked down to under two hours. The DVD released in 2000 is limited to two hours, although the most recent DVD is 25 minutes longer. I suspect it was the latter that had ended up on YouTube since that version runs two hours and twenty-four minutes.  

Advert in Variety (May 4, 1966). Although little seen outside Poland it did well in Rome where it was a “smash” at the box office on the strength of a “sex-baiting campaign promising filmgoers a full dish of screen nudity approved exceptionally by the censors in the name of art” (“Shrew Paces Rome Box Office,” Variety, April 19, 1967, p64).

The story is relatively straightforward. The theme is power. Egypt is in decline when a fictional Rameses XIII (in reality only eleven bore that name) in ascending to power clashes with priests who seek to usurp his rule. That religion dominates Egypt is seen in the opening sequence where, rather than disturb two holy scarabs rolling a ball of clay, the priests take the army en route to battle out of their way. That leads to the destruction of a newly-built and much-needed canal, and the suicide of one of the loin-cloth-clad laborers working on the channel.

But that opening image and the director’s stunning use of the camera as well as the brilliance of the actors in depicting emotion through their eyes and facial expressions makes the film more than accessible despite the lack of sub-titles. This is a different Egypt to that conjured up by Hollywood and such desert-worshippers as David Lean. There is no beauty in a desert. Viewed as a waste, but one in which people have to live, through which foot soldiers have to trudge (rather than gloriously charge on camels), it is a lived-in reality, a great emptiness, devoid of mystery or splendor. The desert is a dead weight. Water is such a visual delight that in a brief scene on the river, the screen is at once bright and wonderful.

Barbara Brylska as the priestess-dancer who seduces Rameses. It is she who appears on the cover of “Films and Filming.”

Glory – temples, pyramids, jewellery – is man-made. But the whole enterprise is naturalistic. Men are bare chested, many clad only in loin cloths, priests are bald while the wealthy are attired in in heavy wigs.   What is not lacking is genuine historical detail. Hollywood had a habit of cherry-picking history for the items that would show up best on camera, but that is not the case here.  

What elevates the film is visual mastery and cinematic flair. Just opening an epic film with two dung beetles having a scrap on an arid plain and holding that image for the best part of a minute suggests a director of considerable talent. He follows this with over a minute of a reverse tracking shot following a soldier running who reveals a waiting army. There are a host of terrific visual scenes – a wild horse is impaled with spears as if in a Spanish bullring, the corpse of the suicidal laborer swings from a noose, cumbersome battles see soldiers surmount arduous dunes, golden doors open one after the other in the palace. 

Even in simple emotional scenes, Kawalerowicz knows where to place the camera and how to use it. The camera follows a woman as she enters a scene. She crouches down to the prostate Rameses. The camera remains on her as she retreats and he comes up to stop her and he remains out of shot as she moves away to the wall where, with her back to him, she begins to wail and then kneels down, hands raised in supplication. Another scene is shot in darkness except for Rameses in a white tunic and a seductress in a transparent dress.

The acting is uniformly good and even though the style is somewhat stilted Jerzy Zelnik as Rameses and the two women in his life, who bear the film’s emotional brunt, Krystyna Mikolajewska as his Jewish mistress and Barbara Brylska as a seductive priestess, are excellent.  Kawalerowicz was best known for Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). Pharaoh was the official Polish entry for the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, up against the far more commercially viable A Man and a Woman from Claude Lelouche (the winner), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde.

Treat the Youtube version as a sampler and if you are impressed you will find below a link to the DVD with Polish voices dubbed into English.

Khartoum (1966) ****

You don’t have to look far for contemporary parallels in this absorbing drama.

A charismatic and clever military strategist the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) inspires a holy war in the Middle East. Ruling global power Britain wants to avoid  “policing the world” and instead of sending in the army despatches in an unofficial capacity its hero of the day, the equally charismatic “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston).

He is the do-gooder as man-of-action having quelled an uprising in China and destroyed the slave trade in Sudan, of which Khartoum is the capital. Offered £6,000 by local interests to become Governor of Sudan, he takes £2,000, “that’s all I need.”

But where a similar kind of hero, Lawrence of Arabia, was politically naive, Gordon is politically adept and much of the joy of this picture is seeing him out-maneuver British prime minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson – compare this performance to his bumbling bore in The Wrong Box out the same year). Gordon’s ostensible task is to evacuate Egyptians from Khartoum. If he succeeds, Britain saves face, if he fails he takes the rap. Directed by British stalwart Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp, 1950; Victim, 1961), the pictures cleaves closer to drama than spectacle.

I remember being quite bored by all the talk when I saw this as a twelve-year-old, but this time round found it completely absorbing, a battle of wits between Gordon and the Mahdi on the one hand and between Gordon and Gladstone on the othor. The action, when it comes, is riveting without the aplomb of Lawrence of Arabia, but audience interest is focused on the main characters.

Richard Johnson, removed from his Bulldog Drummond persona (Some Girls Do), is excellent as Gordon’s aide or, as he acknowledges, “Gladstone’s spy.”

This is a Cinerama picture (cue spectacular widescreen scenery) without the distracting Cinerama effects (a race downhill, a runaway train), a bold political drama poorly received at a time when Cinerama meant spectacular effects and much more action. Definitely worth a second – or first – look.    

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Khartoum-DVD-Charlton-Heston/dp/B000089AUD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2WXSB64ZF7PIT&dchild=1&keywords=khartoum+dvd&qid=1592640053&sprefix=khartoum%2Caps%2C147&sr=8-1