(director: Zoltan Korda; screenwriters: R. C. Sherriff/based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason; cinematographer: Georges Perinal; editor: Henry Cornelius; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: John Clements (Harry Faversham), Ralph Richardson (Captain John Durrance), C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs), June Duprez (Ethne Burroughs), Allan Jeayes (General Faversham), Jack Allen (Lieutenant Willoughby), Donald Gray (Peter Burroughs), Frederick Culley (Dr. Sutton), Clive Baxter (Young Harry Faversham, at 15); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alexander Korda; Artiflix; 1939-UK)

The rousing yarn is a classic British imperialist adventure story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the best version of A. E. W. Mason’s novel of a sensitive military man branded as a coward by his fellow officers, who redeems himself with daring heroics. The screenplay is by R. C. Sherriff. It was previously filmed in 1915, 1921 and 1929. It was also filmed in 1977 and 2002. The rousing yarn is a classic British imperialist adventure story. Director Zoltan Korda (“Sahara”/”Drums”/”Cry, the Beloved Country“) gives the film scope and flair, keeping it bustling with adventure. It’s also well-acted by the capable cast and provides marvelous visual spectacles in Technicolor.

It opens in 1885, in England, with news that the Brits lost Khartoum to the rebel Dervish forces and that General Gordon was slain. At a dinner given by distinguishedretired Gen. Faversham (Allan Jeayes), attended by Faversham’s effete 15-year-old son Harry (Clive Baxter), the blustery retired Gen. Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith) tells of the glory fighting the Crimean War at Balaclava; while Gen. Faversham goes on a rant denouncing cowards as having no place in England, and fears his son Harry is soft. Harry is haunted by his dad’s remarks and would rather read poetry than follow in his dad’s footsteps, as he’s forced to attend military school. The kind-hearted dinner guest Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley) tells the kid that he wants to be a friend and that if his advice is ever needed, Harry should contact him.

The story picks up ten years later, and Harry Faversham (John Clements) is engaged to General Burrough’s daughter Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez). When orders are given for Harry’s regiment to join the fight of reclaiming Khartoum in the Sudan from the Egyptians and be under the command of Lord Kitchener, the young officer surprises everyone by resigning his commission the night before his regiment is sent into the Egyptian campaign. Three of his fellow officers, Lieutenant Arthur Willoughby (Jack Allen), Peter Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), react by each sending him their calling card and an attached white feather (the symbol of a coward) in a single package, and when his fiancée learns of this she agrees with their pronouncement of him which provokes Harry into giving himself a fourth feather to honor her opinion of him. Unable to live with that decision and the shame he caused his long-standing respected military family, Harry meets Dr. Sutton and tells of his secret plans to go to Egypt to get a chance to return the feathers. Promising not to tell anyone where he is, Dr. Sutton is told that if he receives no letter from him after a year to tell Ethne of his fate.

In Egypt, by the Nile River, Harry disguises himself as a branded Sengali Arab, a muted enemy of the Khalifa Dervishes, and redeems himself by rescuing all three of the officers fighting in the Sudan who branded him a coward. He first rescues John, who was the sole survivor trapped in the desert when his entire outfit was slaughtered and because of a sunstroke became blind, and later the other two, who were imprisoned by the enemy. John, who was Harry’s rival in seeking Ethne’s love, returns to England still blind and acts noble by retreating from Ethne’s life when he discovers that Harry is alive and thank God is not a coward.

The story is largely a tribute to imperialism and the empire’s might, though with reservations. It still has appeal to modern-day audiences because its hero protests the futility of costly wars in far-off places that prevent the country from pumping funds into needed domestic concerns, while the old guard in contrast talk about war, military service and bravery as ways of expressing their patriotism. That latter viewpoint might not connect with as wide an audience as when the film was released to theaters in 1939.