They weren't meant as a trilogy, but they make an interesting take on how we saw the Empire at a time when it was both at its greatest extent and nearing its end. Unlike the Old West of contemporary Westerns, the Empire was still somewhere you could visit when the films were made.
The Four Feathers had been filmed once before and twice since. Written by a British spy, it is the story of a man, afraid of being afraid, who resigns from the army when his regiment is ordered to the Sudan. Awarded white feathers for cowardice by his fiance and three best friends, he heads off to the desert in disguise to return the feathers and rescue his mates who have been captured by the Khalifa, the successor to the Mahdi, who had led his people in revolt against their Egyptian masters and British allies and created an Islamic state on the Upper Nile.
The film, made on the eve of war in 1939, has something to say about quiet, rather than ostentatious, courage, but the poor old Sudanese just have to accept their lot as victims of colonialism. As an adventure, though, it works and whilst the Mahdists may just be scenery, they look magnificent.
Khartoum or the Heath Ledger remake, were shot in Egypt and Morocco due to the current unrest there. Maybe it's a pedantic point, but the Sudanese desert is a uniquely barren place of rock and hard ground, far more alien than the shifting sands further north.
All told, this is a film I'd watch again, a film that, if seen alongside Zulu, would make you wonder exactly why the British Empire film never took off as a genre. The answer to that question though, is in Korda's two previous works.
The Drum made the year before, starts well. We are in the Northwest Frontier province of British India, now the disputed Tribal Region of Pakistan where US Drones hunt Al Queda activists.
Things weren't exactly peaceful in 1938, but the film really does appear to have been made on location (even the ever reliable imdb.com is unsure) and Indian army soldiers certainly look like the real thing.
After that though things go rapidly downhill. We are in a small kingdom where the tame king has been assassinated and his brother has taken his place. This guy doesn't want to be part of the Raj, which we are supposed to believe makes him a Bad Man.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the late king has a pro-British son. Played by the always excellent Sabu, star of The Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book. This character just about makes the film watchable, although you constantly hope he's going to have some sort of epiphany and go off and join the Indian National Congress.
Seeing this film I imagine it is how Carry On Up The Khyber would appear to the Goodness Gracious Me characters who thought Titanic was a comedy and Only Fools And Horses serious drama. I think I did watch it to the end once, but I was off work ill at the time and was unable to move off the sofa. It was truly turgid stuff.
Sanders of the River. They don't show this very often on TV, for reasons that will become clear.
Set in Central Africa it is based on a 1911 novel by a chap called Edgar Wallace, who was a well known writer once, but is now only remembered for King Kong. The titular character controls a section of colonial Africa by means of a heavily armed paddle steamer, which is what the West used for this sort of job before the invention on Predator Drones.
Production of the film started well, with a Second Unit crew dispatched on a four month odyssey through Africa to record authentic tribal music and dances. They also hired African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson to play Bosambo, a tribal leader allied to Sanders, and founding father of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta in a small role.
Robeson tried to stop the film being released by buying up all the prints, but he failed. Instead the man who was awarded the International Stalin Prize in 1952 found he had just made "the only film of mine that can be shown in (Mussolini's) Italy or (Nazi) Germany, for it shows the negro as Fascist states desire him - savage and childish."
Old Bones of the River. They don't show this very often on TV either, but perhaps they should as it's been described as "the most comprehensive trashing of the British Empire ever put on celluloid." Here the Sanders character is a self-important fool who puts Eton collars of naked African children in an attempt to make them into English gentlemen, whilst his white colleagues are busy brewing illegal spirits and selling guns to the natives. If you haven't seen Sanders it does come across as racist rubbish, but it also shows how ideas of the White Man's Burden were antiquated even in the thirties.
I will also call in my defense a film made in the same year as The Four Feathers and set in the Raj, but which manages to be heroic, exciting and pretty much inoffensive. This is Gunga Din, staring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr as Kipling's Soldiers Three fighting off, with the aid of the famous water bearer, a resurgent Cult of Thuggee.
Here we see the Empire as it could have been on screen, a mythical place, like the Old West, where reality only tangentially approaches.
However unlike the Old West, the British Empire didn't fade away into legend. The war that began a few months after The Four Feathers was released was the beginning of the end for the European Empires, and their passing wasn't peaceful.
I'm possibly the only human being of the last half century to have watched all three films of Korda's, and I'm not planning on repeating the experience.
All told, I prefer Carry On Up The Khyber.