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Blu-ray Review The Four Feathers (1939) Blu-ray Review

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Matt Hough, Oct 9, 2011.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director
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    The British stiff-upper-lip ethic of duty to Queen and Country above any personal belief or family responsibility is at the core of Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers. With our modern day knowledge of the horrors of war and the often dishonest, megalomaniacal reasons for its existence firmly set our minds, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to watch more naively jingoistic approaches to warfare shown in films from previous decades. But Korda’s The Four Feathers actually offers a very sophisticated view toward war service, and even when the film somewhat abandons its initial stance and jumps headlong into the action-adventure aspects of the war story, it still emerges as a more modern look at attitudes toward martial participation that sets it apart from other adventure films of the time like Beau Geste or In Which We Serve.



    The Four Feathers (1939) (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Zoltan Korda

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1939

    Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1   1080p   AVC codec
    Running Time: 115 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: PCM 1.0 English
    Subtitles: SDH

    Region: A

    MSRP: $39.95


    Release Date: October 11, 2011

    Review Date: October 9, 2011



    The Film

    4.5/5


    A pacifist by nature and uncertain of the strength of his courageous resolve, Harry Faversham (John Clements) withdraws from the British Army in 1896 just as they’re ordered to join the British troops attempting to retake the Sudan. His three closest friends in the regiment Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Lieutenant Willoughby (Jack Allen), and Peter Burroughs (Donald Gray) send him white feathers, the British symbol of cowardice, as they ship out, and Harry’s fiancé Ethne (June Duprez) is likewise disappointed by his apparent lack of courage. Disgraced and mortified by their reactions, he undertakes his own mission: to go to the Sudan and act as a sort of guardian angel for his three former friends in the hopes that he can later present the feathers to them as proof of his own bravery.


    Harry’s antiwar stance is beautifully stated in the R.C. Sherriff-Lajos Biro-Arthur Wimperis rewrite of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel (which presented Harry as an unmitigated coward of the first order), so his resolve to prove his worthiness to his friends and true love is a much more admirable reason for going to war (though they do let him admit that he doubted his own intestinal fortitude so his journey was to prove to himself he wasn’t a coward as much as it was to prove it to them). They also are wise not to have made him Rambo; he makes mistakes, gets captured and tortured, and must resort to brain power rather than muscle power to win the day. Though the story had been filmed three times prior to this 1939 version (and would be filmed three more times afterward), this version contains just the right amounts of spectacle, derring-do, and personal insight. Zoltan Korda’s direction finds him equally at home in the salons of London or the deserts of the Sudan where two epic battle scenes and the escape from Ondurman are filmed with a wonderful sense of spectacle and nicely choreographed action bravado. Extensive location filming with the cumbersome Technicolor camera of the day wasn’t easy, so the accomplishments here are quite awe-inspiring. Korda captures deliriously colorful shots on the Nile, an explosion of locusts flying out of desert trees, the parched desert of the Sudan in November, and the constantly circling buzzards overhead that give legitimacy to every moment of the time spent outdoors.


    John Clements gives an understated albeit effective performance as the film’s hero even if he makes for a less than convincing Arab once he goes undercover. Ralph Richardson is the film’s heartbreak kid as he becomes both a loser in love (twice) and war (by losing his sight) playing a character unfortunately tainted by fate. It’s a slightly theatrical performance compared to those around him, but it works in the context of the tragic character he’s playing. June Duprez is something of a pill in her lack of understanding and her sense of shame with a man she supposedly loves without even trying to understand his point of view, but the filmmakers have been kind to allow her a scene of redemption later on which makes his homecoming to her palatable. As he almost always did in films, C. Aubrey Smith as General Burroughs, a blowhard military man whose grand memories of his past exploits grow greater over time, steals all of his scenes and has a memorable moment as the troops sail away from England where he silently watches and waves while tears well in his eyes. Frederick Culley as Dr. Sutton, the one person who seems to understand Harry’s feelings and who never turns his back on the young man, gives an honest, likable performance.



    Video Quality

    4/5


    The film has been framed at its theatrical 1.37:1 aspect ratio and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. At its best, sharpness is excellent, and the Technicolor is striking and luscious. But there are some video quality issues. The print contains some scratches (some white, some red) and shows some wear along the right edge from time to time. There are one or two moments where the Technicolor alignment is slightly off or where color anomalies plop onto the frame. Color also occasionally shows a bit of fluctuation though, for the most part, it’s solid and consistent. Reds especially come across as bright and rich. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.



    Audio Quality

    3.5/5


    The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix offers well recorded dialogue, engaging sound effects, and the strong Miklos Rozsa score all occupying the soundtrack with only the slightest bit of distortion when the music swells to increased volume levels. There is underlying hiss throughout the presentation, too, though it’s only noticeable in the quieter moments of the film.



    Special Features

    3.5/5


    The audio commentary is by film historian Charles Drazin, and it’s chock full of anecdotes about the producer, director, stars, the original novel, the production history, and much more, all recounted in an engaging speaking voice that makes it a pleasure to hear.


    All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080p.


    Filmmaker David Korda, son of the director, gives a 23 ¼-minute video interview filmed in 2011 in which he discusses his family’s history and his father’s personal and professional achievements and shortcomings.


    “A Day at Denham” is a 1939 promotional film lauding the achievements of London Films (the studio owned and run by Alexander Korda) offering the viewer a tour of the facilities and in doing so showing us a couple of scenes being filmed for The Four Feathers. It runs 10 ¼ minutes.


    The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 ¾ minutes.


    The enclosed folded pamphlet offers the cast and crew lists and an essay on the film and its filmmakers by critic Michael Sragow.


    The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.



    In Conclusion

    4/5 (not an average)


    A classic adventure tale of its kind, The Four Feathers is also a rather sophisticated tale of personal and nationalistic pride put to the test. This Criterion Blu-ray presentation offers the seventy-two year old film with a very satisfying video and audio transfer and some welcome bonus materials. Recommended!




    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC

     
  2. Adam Gregorich

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    Thanks for the review Matt. I am so excited to see this on Blu-ray and placed my preorder some time ago. This is one of my favorite classic films. I had forgotten about Beau Geste. I would love to see that on Blu-ray too.
     
  3. cineMANIAC

    cineMANIAC Cinematographer

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    I also preordered this title but the estimated delivery date from Amazon is 10/13. Shouldn't people who have Amazon Prime expect to receive it tomorrow, on the street date?
     
  4. PatH

    PatH Second Unit

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    I know Blu is the cat's meow and all, but I don't have it. So would someone out there compare the Criterion DVD with the earlier MGM release, which I have. Thanks! PatH
     
  5. moviepas

    moviepas Supporting Actor

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    Now for the Korda The Thief of Bagdad & Jungle Book(is there superior material out there of the latter title?) on Blu Ray. Pity the 1929 version couldn't have been included as an extra but... I see there was a British version in 1921 with some guy called Harry Ham playing Harry Faversham(Roger Livesey played the part as a boy). Made by theatre owners Stoll at their Cricklewood/London Studios. a studio that made Sherlock Holmes featurettes in that period and Jackie Coogan visited with his dad in the later 20s, I think. I lived in the adjoining suburb in early 1971(Kilburn, the irish suburb then).
     
  6. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director
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    Isn't The Jungle Book coming out in a Eclipse DVD box set next month? Since those films are never remastered for those releases, I tend to think that superior materials are not available, but that's strictly a guess. I guess we'll know next month for sure.
     
  7. ajabrams

    ajabrams Second Unit

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    I watched part of The Jungle Book on TCM recently and it looked beautiful. As I recall, there was a Janus Films logo at the beginning so I think that's a good sign that the Eclipse version will look really good.
     
  8. JoHud

    JoHud Producer

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    I'm looking forward to the Sabu! Eclipse release very much. Glad to hear about the TCM release.
     
  9. marsnkc

    marsnkc Supporting Actor

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    Barnes and Noble's periodic 50% off sale of Criterions started yesterday. I ordered FF today after watching my MGM DVD last night (for the first time). The DVD looked pretty nice on my 22" CRT in my bedroom, but I doubt it would hold up very well on my 50" plasma. Even an incremental improvement over the DVD would be enough to justify getting this masterpiece on BD. DVD Beaver has comparison screen shots, but these of course are subject to the usual soft- and hardware vagaries in the pipeline. I realize this doesn't answer your question, but it will be a while before I get the BD and even longer before I get around to watching it. I just wanted you to know about the sale and give my best guess based on Matt's and others' reviews.
     
  10. David_B_K

    David_B_K Advanced Member

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    Chances are, the Blu-ray forum/review page will likely only have the opinions of those who have the Blu-ray. Because this film is such a favorite of mine; I felt compelled to order the Blu-ray today during the B & N 50% off sale. However, truth to tell, according to DVDBeaver's screenshots, the MGM disc looks pretty good, some combing issues aside.
     
  11. marsnkc

    marsnkc Supporting Actor

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    Agree 100%. The MGM disc looks so good that the BD may not be a jaw-dropping improvement, that's why I used the word 'incremental', enough for me to justify buying this 72 year old gem at the B&N sale. The reason I warned of the vagaries of comparison screenshots is because, with the exception of the example of C. Aubrey Smith seeing off the troops, there doesn't appear to be a hugely significant difference between the two formats. However, the difference may be very apparent when the discs are compared on a large screen.
     
  12. theonemacduff

    theonemacduff Second Unit

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    You can find a comparison at DVD Beaver, here – http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReviews12/the-four-feathers.htm but it only compares the Criterion blu with the MGM SD. I would guess that the colours on the Criterion DVD are pretty much identical with colours on the blu, so the comparison offers a reasonable guide.
     
  13. Stephen_J_H

    Stephen_J_H All Things Film Junkie

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    The one thing I noted from the DVDBeaver comparison was the amount of red fringing present. It would be wonderful if the resources were available to to an UltraResolution-type digital recombination on the ONeg, but I suspect that MGM and other rights holders do not see a sufficient return on investment for such an endeavour.
     

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