When I was in high school, my history teacher showed us a movie called The Four Feathers as a supplement to our class work regarding the British occupation of Africa in the late nineteenth century. The film was shot in 2002 and starred Heath Ledger, so it was an automatic crowd pleaser. I paid attention, marginally, as most students do when shown movies in class. I enjoyed it, but hadn’t thought much of it afterward until last week.
While browsing through the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus, I noticed The Four Feathers listed under the heading of most popular films. It was then that I learned that the Heath Ledger movie was, in fact, a remake of a film by the same name produced in 1939. Barring improvements in special effects, I tend to think that original movies are usually better than their remakes, so I decided to try the 1939 version of The Four Feathers.
This movie tells a story of honour. At the beginning of the film, a young soldier resigns his post because of cowardice on the night before his regiment is scheduled to leave for Africa. By doing this, he deeply wrongs four people — three of his fellow soldiers and his fiancée. The young soldier realizes his dreadful mistake and sets out on a journey to redeem himself.
What makes this tale truly remarkable is that it is a war story wherein the main conflict is not the war. The focus is the young soldier’s path to redemption, and his own personal growth as he sheds his cowardice. While it is a fascinating historical piece, this film is also a valuable tale of redemption and friendship.
The 1939 version of this story was, in my opinion, more powerful simply because it is older. It was made during a time when Hollywood was not all glitz and glamour. The lead role was not played by a famous heartthrob, but by a strong actor who was able to illustrate the deep emotional turmoil and personal growth experienced by the character. Whichever version viewers select, however, this is definitely a film worth watching.