The Four Feathers

A. E. W. Mason The Four Feathers (1929 film) The Four Feathers (2002 film)

The Four Feathers
Four feathers first UK edition book cover.jpg
Front cover of the first edition (UK)
AuthorA. E. W. Mason
Publication date

The Four Feathers is a 1902 adventure novel by British writer A. E. W. Mason that has inspired many films of the same title. In December 1901, Cornhill Magazine announced the title as one of two new serial stories to be published in the forthcoming year.[1] Against the background of the Mahdist War, young Feversham disgraces himself by quitting the army, which others perceive as cowardice, symbolized by the four white feathers they give him. He redeems himself with acts of great courage and wins back the heart of the woman he loves.[2]

Plot summary

The novel tells the story of a British officer, Harry Feversham, who resigns from his commission in the Royal North Surrey Regiment just before Lord Garnet Wolseley's 1882 expedition to Egypt to suppress the rising of Colonel Ahmed Orabi. He is censured for cowardice by three of his comrades—Captain Trench and Lieutenants Castleton and Willoughby—signified by their delivery of three white feathers to him. His fiancée, Ethne Eustace, breaks off their engagement and also gives him a white feather. His best friend in the regiment, Captain Durrance, becomes a rival for Ethne.

Harry talks with Lieutenant Sutch, a friend of his late father who is an imposing retired general. He questions his own motives, but says he will redeem himself by acts that will convince his critics to take back the feathers. He travels on his own to Egypt and Sudan, where in 1882 Muhammad Ahmed proclaimed himself the Mahdi (Guided One) and raised a Holy War. On 26 January 1885, his Dervish forces captured Khartoum and killed its British governor, General Charles George Gordon. Most of the action over the next six years takes place in the eastern Sudan, where the British and Egyptians held Suakin. Durrance is blinded by sunstroke and invalided. Castleton is reportedly killed at Tamai, where a British square is briefly broken by a Mahdi attack.

Harry's first success comes when he recovers lost letters of Gordon. He is aided by a Sudanese Arab, Abou Fatma. Later, disguised as a mad Greek musician, Harry gets imprisoned in Omdurman, where he rescues Captain Trench, who had been captured on a reconnaissance mission. They escape.

Learning of his actions, Willoughby and Trench give Ethne the feathers they had taken back from Harry. He returns to England, and sees Ethne for what he thinks is one last time, as she has decided to devote herself to the blind Durrance. But Durrance tells her his blindness is curable (a white lie) and frees her for Harry. Ethne and Harry wed, and Durrance travels to "the East" as a civilian.

Film, TV and theatrical adaptations

This novel's story has been adapted as films several times, with all films retaining much of the same storyline.[3]

In the 1929 silent version, a square of Highlanders is broken, but saved by Feversham and the Egyptian garrison of a besieged fort. Set in the 1880s, its great moment comes when wild hippos in a river attack the Dervishes pursuing Feversham.

The films each feature a British square broken in a dramatic battle sequence. This is only mentioned in the novel, in a battle in which the square recovered. The various film versions differ in the precise historical context.

The 2002 version starring Heath Ledger is set during the 1884–85 campaign. The British infantry square was broken in the battle of Abu Klea and the British are forced to retreat. Critics complained that the film did not explore the characters sufficiently, and had historical inaccuracies in uniform dress. The central battle is more accurately treated in the film Khartoum (1966). The enemy forces, Islamic rebels called Dervishes, or The Mahdi, are the same, as are the geographic settings of Britain, Egypt and the Sudan.

The various film versions are as follows:

Year Title Country Director Notes
1915 Four Feathers USA J. Searle Dawley Black-and-white, silent
1921 The Four Feathers UK René Plaissetty Roger Livesey appeared in a minor role. Black-and-white, silent.
1929 The Four Feathers US Merian C. Cooper
Lothar Mendes
Ernest B. Schoedsack
Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, Clive Brook.
1939 The Four Feathers UK Zoltan Korda Starring Ralph Richardson, John Clements, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez. Considered by many to be the best of the film versions,[4][5][6] this was lavishly filmed in colour in many of the real African locations.
1955 Storm Over the Nile UK Terence Young, Zoltan Korda Starring Anthony Steel, James Robertson Justice, Ian Carmichael, Ronald Lewis, Michael Hordern. A low-budget colour remake, using much of the location footage shot for the 1939 version of The Four Feathers, and exactly the same script – one of the few instances in which this was done (see Shot-for-shot for other examples).
1978 The Four Feathers UK Don Sharp Starring Robert Powell, Simon Ward, Beau Bridges and Jane Seymour. Completely remade for a new generation (though several scenes have been inserted from the 1939 version (e.g. the troops boarding the train in London, a panorama featuring dhows on the Nile, the British Army on parade) with a great deal of skill. The integration of these excerpts is far from obvious to those who have not seen the 1939 version). The classic tale retains its imperial stiff upper lip and Boys Own style of adventure heroics.
2002 The Four Feathers US Shekhar Kapur Starring Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson. Made by an Indian director, this version takes a revisionist stance on the original novel's themes of masculinity, empire and the clash of Western and Islamic civilisations. Unlike earlier versions, this one bases its big battle scene on the 1885 Battle of Abu Klea (thirteen years before Omdurman). The British soldiers also wear their iconic scarlet tunics when they had already changed to wearing khaki. The film depicts a British loss at Abu Klea, instead of a victory.


  1. ^ Classified Ad 5, The Observer; 22 December 1901
  2. ^ Books & Bookmen, The Manchester Guardian; 2 April 1914
  3. ^ John C. Tibbetts, and James M. Welsh, eds. The Encyclopedia of Novels Into Film (2nd ed. 2005) pp 136–159.
  4. ^ Michael Sragow (11 October 2011). "The Four Feathers: Breaking the British Square". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 5 September 2013.
  5. ^ Dennis Schwartz (2 November 2011). "Four Feathers, The". Retrieved 5 September 2013.
  6. ^ "The Four Feathers". Time Out. Retrieved 5 September 2013.