1939 Ten Best Movies

On to the consensus greatest year in Hollywood history. Do people still call it that? 20 years ago, everybody agreed on the magical status of 1939, the year of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach. I haven’t heard much about it lately, even though we’re noting the 70th anniversary of those movies this year. Either the obviousness of the year’s pinnacle status has been challenged lately (what about 1959? North by Northwest, Rio Bravo, Some Like it Hot, The 400 Blows? Whoops, I’m giving away a future entry) or 1939 is quietly slipping away, with the rest of pre-WWII cinema, into a dignified but museum-y place in the public imagination.

rules5That would be too bad, because 1939 was indeed a swell year in film. No question Hollywood was at a kind of peak of the studio system, even if the European system was being buffeted by other concerns (see WWII reference, above). Still, the film of the year is from Europe, a defining masterpiece that stands as the great example of a cinema that makes room to breathe rather than follow out a set of preordained blueprints. The Rules of the Game is a flexible picture that nevertheless always displays a firm guiding hand: it’s both sympathetic and satiric, passionate and detached, melancholy and joyful. And having reached this high point, Jean Renoir and many of his colleagues were about to see their lives rooted up, like so many others on the edge of the catastrophe to come.

The ten best of 1939:

1. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)

2. Stagecoach (John Ford)

3. Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)

4. Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford)

5. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming)

6. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra)

7. The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda)

8. Love Affair (Leo McCarey)

9. Gunga Din (George Stevens)

10. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch)

No Gone with the Wind in the 10, but I like it all right. Look at the year John Ford had: two in the top five, plus Drums Along the Mohawk coming up high on the next tier. I had to give the advantage to Stagecoach, because when it comes to fountainhead movies, you can’t do much better. Only Angels Have Wings is one of my favorite films, and I have The Wizard of Oz happily ingrained in my head just like everyone else in my generation. The Four Feathers (which I describe in more detail here) is something of a sleeper, but this movie ought to be as well known as, say, Gunga Din, another adventure story.

Next week: 1974.

The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers

by Robert Horton

The following was written for a Film.com series, “The Best Films You’ve Never Seen,” probably in 2000, as an introduction to this film. It’s slightly updated.

The year is 1939, and the movie is a rousing tale of action in a far-flung British colony, a ripping yarn of courage set against spectacular scenery, a boy’s adventure with the spirit of Rudyard Kipling. No, we are not talking about Gunga Din. The other 1939 movie that fits that description is The Four Feathers, a sublimely entertaining piece of derring-do that remains criminally anonymous to conventional film history.

fourf4Why is The Four Feathers not as revered as Gunga Din — or Casablanca, for that matter? I haven’t the foggiest notion, although being a British production on the eve of the Second World War might have limited its accessibility. Minute for minute, this picture is the equal of those classics, and it closes with a final scene that rivals the most delicious fade-outs in film history. The story is obviously well-regarded, as the A.E.W. Mason source novel has been filmed a half-dozen times since the silent era, including a 1977 TV movie with Beau Bridges and a deeply regrettable 2002 remake with Heath Ledger. The 1939 version was popular at the time, and garnered an Oscar nomination for its cinematography. But first-rank fame has eluded this gem —  perhaps a fitting destiny for a story about glorious deeds done surreptitiously.

The picture opens in the 1880s, with the misery of 15-year-old Harry Faversham. Young Harry perfers reading poetry to hearing his father’s friends talk about their battle exploits, but he is doomed to a military career — following in the ancestors’ footsteps, and all that. Ten years later, Harry (now played by John Clements) resigns his commission in the Army, just as his regiment is about to leave for dangerous duty in the Sudan. The act brings disgrace on Harry, and his fiancee Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) breaks off their engagement.

Here’s where the title comes from: Harry’s three Army comrades send him three white feathers, with their cards attached. The white feather signifies cowardice. As he leaves Ethne after their break up, Harry bitterly tears a white feather from her fan and takes it with the others. Although he has thoughtful reasons for not wanting to go to war, Harry admits to a doctor (Frederick Culley), an old friend of his late father, that he is also afraid of battle. In order to redeem himself, he decides to go to Africa on his own.

To reach then Sudan from Egypt incognito, Harry pretends to be a member of an enslaved Arab tribe whose tongues have been cut out — and whose foreheads have been branded with the letter S. He can fake the muteness, but the brand is actually scalded onto his face. After a marvelous sequence showing Harry’s forced labor as a barge-puller along the Nile (great music here by Miklos Rozsa, then at the start of his long career as a movie composer), he escapes into the desert and goes to help his comrades.

fourf3The Hungarian-born Alexander Korda, one of the most important British producers of the era, sent the Four Feathers crew off to the Sudan to film the terrific location footage, which includes awesome battles scenes and beautiful views of sailboats on the Nile. (The movie has two rungs up on Gunga Din in this department: it’s in Technicolor, and it was shot where the story is set; Gunga Din, a tale of India, was filmed in Lone Pine, California.) To direct the film, Korda tapped his brother Zoltan, a great field general for outdoor movies, who stages the adventure scenes with a sure touch.

As splendid as the action is, the movie would not be a classic without its subplot, in which Harry’s mate John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) pines for the love of Ethne Burroughs. And what man would not pine for the love of a woman with a name like Ethne Burroughs? Sigh. Anyway, poor noble John always knows he is second choice, even when Harry is in disgrace, and the great Richardson beautifully captures his heroic resignation.

The film’s other great performance comes from eagle-faced C. Aubrey Smith, that most English of all English character actors. As Ethne’s father, he is forever boring everybody in sight with his memories of the Crimean War — “war was war in those days, and men were men.” That The Four Feathers pokes fun at the official voice of patriotism, while nevertheless un-ironically upholding old-fashioned virtues such as honor and self-sacrifice, has everything to do with its enduring (if neglected) charm.