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Setting aside the outdated attitudes, this is a pretty amazing picture to have come out of Britain at a time when color was in its infancy and when the Brits were not known for producing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.

The 300 Spartans (1962) ****

Doomed for half a century to be seen as Saturday television matinee material and then put into the shade by the Zack Snyder’s stylish 300 (2006), The 300 Spartans is in sore need of re-evaluation.  Lacking the big budget of an El Cid (1961) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and released during an era when historical drama – Barabbas (1961), The Mongols (1961), Sword of the Conqueror (1961), The Trojan Horse (1961), and The Tartars (1961) – was at a peak, this is a stripped-down version of the famous Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and none the worse for it.

Clever camerawork suggests thousands of warriors involved but there is little sign of scrimping in the wardrobe department and there is more than enough action. Also, this is a surprising literate picture, with great lines for cynical politicians as much as for warriors and peasants. Themistocles (Ralph Richardson) comments: “Some day, I may enter religion myself. It’s better than politics. With the gods behind you, you can be more irresponsible.”  Told that the invading Persian army has “arrows that will blot out the sun,” Spartan King Leonides retorts, “then we will fight in the shade.”  And there’s sexist banter typical of the period between a peasant couple: wife – “goats have more brains than men”; husband – “who can understand the ways of the gods, they create lovely girls and then turn them into wives.”

Originally titled” The Lion of Sparta”, the film could not have been made without the wholesale cooperation of the Greek army which supplied over 2,000 soldiers. Those playing Spartans had to be over six foot tall. Since the Greeks had no cavalry and few knew how to ride, around 200 were given a crash course. It was a bonanza for the soldiers – their normal wage of $2 was supplemented by $5.50. Thermopylae no longer looked like the area immortalised by the battle, so the action was shot at Loutraki, near Corinth and 80 miles from Athens. 

Quite how Leonides ends up fighting the massive army on its own is down to a mixture of politics and religion. Oracles foretell doom. The various Greek states refuse to join together, although Athens lends Sparta its fleet (“Athens’ wooden wall”). Even Sparta officially refuses to participate on the grounds that battle would interrupt a major religious festival. Leonides’ “army” of 300 men is comprised of his bodyguard. A romantic subplot involving a young couple results in catastrophe. Just how ruthless is the opposition is shown when  Persian king Xerxes slaughters all his soldiers’ wives to make the men more determined to get to Greece where doubtless they will enslave the female population. When his archers fire, he doesn’t care if the arrows hit his own men.

What marks out the best historical action pictures is the intelligence behind the battle. Strategy is key. The first weapon, of course, is surprise so the Spartans sneak into the Persian camp from the sea and burn their tents. During battle, to counteract the Persian cavalry, the front row of the Spartan army lies down and allows the horses to jump over them, then rising up, traps the cavalry and drives them into the sea. Other clever measures are used deal with the Persian crack infantry regiment, the Immortals. Even at the end, the Spartans continue to confound the enemy with clever ruses.

Richard Egan is effective as Leonides, Ralph Richardson excellent as the wily but honourable Themistocles while Hitchcock protégé Diane Baker (“glaringly miscast” according to Variety) has the female lead though Anne Wakefield as a Persian queen the more interesting role. Former British star David Farrar (Meet Sexton Blake, 1945) is the intemperate Xerxes.

Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rudolf Mate delivers the directorial goods, his handling of the dramatic scenes as confident as the action and masking the holes in his budget by making clever use of trees as the invaders march, suggesting an army far bigger than he could afford to put on the screen. Color-coding the Spartans – they were in red – made the action clearer to follow. George St George, with few credits of notes (and few at all) doubling up as producer, wrote the script. This thoughtful drama with striking action deserves reassessment.

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

The Wrong Box (1966)***

Somewhere between SBIG (So Bad It’s Good) and WAL (Worth a Look), The Wrong Box is a black comedy in the wrong directorial hands.

Better known for thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and POW drama King Rat (1965) Bryan Forbes struggles to bring enough comedy into the proceedings or to wring sufficient laughs out of what he has. Neither the wit nor the slapstick is sharp enough. But it does exhibit a certain charm.

Essentially an inheritance story, it pivots on the notion that the two potential inheritors are on their last legs and putting one (Ralph Richardson) out of action will benefit the dastardly nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) of the sole survivor (John Mills). It turns out Richardson is not dead. That does not cue as much hilarity as it should.

Surprisingly, the film relies on affecting performances from Michael Caine, playing against type as a gentle soul, and Nanette Newman as a young woman terrified of being murdered, who enjoy a very innocent romance. Hitherto, I had been rather sniffy about Ms Newman, but here she is delightful. Ralph Richardson steals the movie as a dotty pedant, weighted down with erudition and a knack, equally, for boring the pants off anyone within earshot and for escaping from the jaws of death including a massive train pile-up and several murderous attempts by Mills.

Cook and Moore let the show down by being so obviously just themselves but there is a nice cameo from Peter Sellers as an inebriated doctor.

Michael Caine got it spot-on when pointing out in his autobiography that it was a “gentle success in most places except Britain” precisely because to foreigners it represented an acceptably stereotypical view of a country full of eccentrics while to Brits it was all too stereotypical. So if you’re from America or other points global you might like it and if you are British you might not. On the other hand, the score by John Barry is one of his best with a wonderful theme tune.

POSTCRIPT. Just to back up Caine’s assertion, I pulled out the Pressbook from my stack and it goes heavy on critical praise. Newsweek said: “As funny and sunny a movie as any audience could ask for.” From the New York Times came: “so fantastic and explosive it virtually pops right out of the screen! A crazy, merry tale that tumbles somewhere between black humor and elegant, uninhibited camp.” The New York Post thought it was “a beautifully designed elaborate spoof,” while as far as the New York Daily Post was concerned it was “a laugh a minute.”