In 1895, the Royal North Surrey Regiment is called to active service to join the army of Sir Herbert Kitchener in the Mahdist War against the forces of The Khalifa (John Laurie). Forced into an army career by family tradition and fearful he might prove a coward in battle, Lieutenant Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission on the eve of its departure. As a result, his three friends and fellow officers, Captain John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) and Lieutenants Burroughs (Donald Gray) and Willoughby (Jack Allen), show their contempt for his action by each sending him a white feather attached to a calling card. When his fiancée, Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), says nothing in his defence, he bitterly demands a fourth from her. She refuses, but he plucks one from her fan.
Harry confides in an old mentor and former surgeon in his father's regiment, Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley), that he now realises he did act out of cowardice and must attempt to redeem himself. He departs for Egypt. There, he disguises himself as a despised mute Sangali native, with the help of Dr. Harraz (Henry Oscar), to hide his lack of knowledge of the local languages.
During the army's advance, Durrance is ordered to take his company into the desert to lure the Khalifa's army away from the Nile so that Kitchener's army can sail past. Durrance is blinded by sunstroke, and the company is overrun. He is left for dead on the battlefield, while Burroughs and Willoughby are captured. However, the disguised Faversham takes the delirious Durrance across the desert and down the Nile to the vicinity of a British fort. As he is putting something into Durrance's wallet, Faversham is spotted and mistaken for a robber. He is placed in a convict gang, but escapes.
Six months later, the blind Durrance has returned to England. Out of pity, Ethne agrees to marry him. At dinner with Ethne, her father, and Dr. Sutton, as Durrance is relating the tale of his miraculous rescue, he pulls out a keepsake letter from Ethne, the only thing he had in his wallet during the "robbery". A white feather and his card drop out, revealing to the others that his rescuer was Harry Faversham. Nobody has the heart to tell him.
Burroughs and Willoughby are thrown into a dungeon in Omdurman with other enemies of the Khalifa. Still playing the addled Sangali, Faversham surreptitiously gives them hope of escape and passes them a file, but arouses the suspicions of the guards. He is flogged and imprisoned with the others. He reveals his identity to his friends and organizes an escape during the Kitchener's attack. Faversham leads the other prisoners in overpowering their guards and seizing the Khalifa's arsenal, where they hold until the arrival of Kitchener's forces.
Durrance learns of Faversham's deeds from a newspaper account and realises it was Harry who saved him. He dictates a letter to Ethne, releasing her from their engagement on the false pretext of going to Germany for a prolonged course of treatment to restore his eyesight. Some time later, Harry attends a dinner with his friends and Ethne, where General Burroughs (C. Aubrey Smith), Ethne's father, acknowledges that Harry has forced all of them to take back their feathers—all except Ethne. Faversham playfully makes her take back her white feather by interrupting the general in the midst of his favourite war story about the Battle of Balaclava to correct his embellishments; the irritated Burroughs complains that he will never be able to tell that story again.John Clements as Harry Faversham
Ralph Richardson as Captain John Durrance
C. Aubrey Smith as General Burroughs
June Duprez as Ethne Burroughs
Allan Jeayes as General Faversham
Jack Allen as Lieutenant Willoughby
Donald Gray as Peter Burroughs
Frederick Culley as Dr Sutton
Clive Baxter as Young Harry Faversham
Robert Rendel as Colonel
Archibald Batty as Adjutant
Derek Elphinstone as Lieutenant Parker
Hal Walters as Joe
Norman Pierce as Sergeant Brown
Henry Oscar as Dr. Harraz
John Laurie as the Khalifa Abdullah
It was mostly filmed on location in the Sudan in Technicolor.
The 1st Battalion the East Surrey Regiment were used in period uniforms for scenes in which they withstood the Dervish advance en masse.
The Four Feathers, a novel written by A. E. W. Mason, has been adapted for film on numerous other occasions:Four Feathers, a 1915 silent film starring Edgar L. Davenport
The Four Feathers (1921), a silent film starring Harry Ham
The Four Feathers (1929), a silent film featuring Richard Arlen
Storm Over the Nile (1955), starring Anthony Steel - and also directed by Zoltan Korda.
The Four Feathers (1977), a television film with Beau Bridges in the lead role
The Four Feathers (2002), starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson.
This version is widely considered the best of all the numerous film adaptations of the novel. Critic Michael Sragow praises the "film's gritty magic", calling it "next to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the most harrowingly beautiful of all desert spectaculars." "They [the film crew] and the cast all do their jobs so well that the action becomes poetic." The Time Out review cites its "superb Technicolor camerawork ... and solid performances all round." It has a 100% freshness rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color.
The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival.
It is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.