Sunday, August 28, 2016

Different Kinds of Heroes: "A Distant Trumpet" and "Four Feathers"

A Distant Trumpet (1964). I recognize that Troy Donahue's thespian skills were limited. Yet, in the right role--such as one of the naive lovers in A Summer Place--he performed more than satisfactorily. As I've noted before, Warner Bros. didn't do Troy any favors by typecasting him as a wholesome, contemporary good guy. Yet, when he got the rare change-of-pace role, he didn't always succeed. He was creepily effective as a subtle psycho in My Blood Runs Cold, but he seems totally out of place in the Raoul Walsh Western A Distant Trumpet. Is it just me or does a Troy Donahue-Raoul Walsh film sound like an oxymoron?
A lobby card with Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette.
Donahue plays Lieutenant Matthew Hazard, a recent West Point graduate, who has been sent to Fort Delivery in the Arizona Territory. The local Apaches, led by a their charismatic leader War Eagle, have "jumped" the reservation and threaten to start war with the Cavalry. The young officer finds the military installation manned by sloppy troops. He soon whips them into shape. He also makes an instant connection with pretty Kitty Mainwarring (Suzanne Pleshette). Unfortunately, she is married to another officer and--to everyone's surprise--Matt's Eastern girlfriend Laura (Diane McBain) shows up at the fort.

I was looking forward to Suzanne and Diane engaging in a good old catfight over Troy. Alas, everyone remains stiff and proper. That leads to the major problem with A Distant Trumpet: It takes itself too seriously. With this cast, Walsh (directing his final film) should have thrown in the towel, injected some humor, and concentrated on producing an entertaining film. Instead, he gives us a poor man's Broken Arrow without the script and actors that gave that 1950 classic emotional heft.

A Distant Trumpet is not a total waste of time. Max Steiner delivers another convincing score and Claude Akins makes a strong impression in a small role as a "businessman" running a mobile brothel.

John Clements and June Duprez.
The Four Feathers (1939). The best adaptation of A.E. Mason's grand old adventure novel remains the 1939 version directed by Zoltan Korda. Set mostly in Sudan in 1895, Four Feathers balances several impressive action sequences with an appealing tale of personal courage.

We first meet the film's protagonist, Harry Faversham, as a young boy surrounded by military traditions and old soldiers who recount their exaggerated exploits. Harry has no taste for the Army, however--even though he grows up to become a British officer. When he learns of his regiment's deployment to fight the Mahdist Sudanese, Harry resigns his commission. His three closest friends, all fellow officers, perceive his decision as an act of cowardice. They each send him a white feather attached to their calling cards. When Harry turns to his fiancee for support, she offers none. Knowing that she must think him a coward, too, he plucks a white feather from her fan--hence, the the four feathers of the title.

I find it interesting that Harry's fiancee and friends are so quick to brand him a coward when it's clear that he has never embraced the military life. I almost wish that he had stood his ground and rejected the urge to prove his courage. Of course, that would have been a very different film indeed. Four Feathers is first and foremost an impressively crafted, exciting tale of derring-do in the tradition of Beau Geste and Gunga Din. It differs from those pictures in that it's more of a star vehicle than an ensemble piece.

That star is John Clements, whose performance as Harry Faversham was one of only 30 acting credits for the silver screen. He spent most of his career on the British stage, as a performer, a producer, and a playwright. His work in the theatre earned him a knighthood in 1968. It's a shame he didn't make more movies as a leading man. He's quite convincing as Faversham, conveying his character's inner turmoil, resilience, and ingenuity.

There have been numerous other versions of The Four Feathers. Richard Arlen and William Powell starred in a 1929 silent version. Storm Over the Nile (1955) was a B-movie version with a young Laurence Harvey (though Anthony Steel played Faversham). Beau Bridges played the lead in a decent 1978 made-for-TV adaptation. The worst version to date has to be the ludicrous 2002 Four Feathers with Heath Ledger as Harry and a horribly miscast Kate Hudson.


  1. Old time macho directors like Walsh clearly saw the end when faced with '50's pretty boys like Donahue. William Wellman came to the same conclusion directing Tab Hunter in Lafayette Escadrille.

  2. Some instinct has been telling me to avoid "A Distant Trumpet" all these years. On the other hand, the 1939 version of "The Four Feathers" and I have been cheerful companions for years. Why, I never go out into the sunshine without my hat and without thinking of Ralph Richardson.

    Have you seen "Knight Without Armor"? It's from 1937 and John Clement has a featured role where stars Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich seem perfectly happy with letting him, briefly, steal the picture from them.

  3. It sounds like WB was hoping to lure the teen crowd into westerns by casting Donahue, Pleshette and McBain....but it didn't work. It should have been a light-hearted semi-comedy in the vein of Advance to the Rear.