Playing Empire: Settler Masculinities, Adventure, and Merian C. Cooper’s The Four Feathers (US 1929)


This essay uses archival and historical material on Merian C. Cooper and the production and promotion of The Four Feathers (U.S. 1929) to demonstrate key aspects of the settler coloniality of the United States in the 1920s. While the film’s narrative tells a familiar story of British imperial culture, its contextual elements are embedded within U.S. settler discourses, which include an investment in the performance of imperial masculinities. The current essay forms part of a chapter in my book Making Settler Cinemas: Film and Colonial Encounters in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).


Sometime in 1929, a photographer on the set of The Four Feathers took the picture that appears in fig. 1. At this time the production was located in Cathedral City, California, not far from Palm Springs and a few hours’ drive from Hollywood. In the picture, Merian C. Cooper, dressed in desert fatigues and carrying a fedora at his side, stands to the left of the frame, with his co-director, the rangy Ernest B. Schoedsack, to the right. Each man has a pipe jutting out to the left of his mouth, and together they stand self-confidently, legs wide, before a large stenciled sign: “Camp of The Four Feathers. Ladies or Women Not Allowed. Schoedsack-Cooper.” This picture – and the very fact of its staging – is striking for the way it reveals the ideological stakes of this film and its production. The photograph works to confirm the narrative of The Four Feathers as a masculine affair, an adventure story generated around an almost exclusively male world that privileges masculine power and military prowess in a time of empire. Moreover, the arrangement of the men and signage in this scene redoubles that kind of masculinist ideal within the very production of the film itself, making of that experience another kind of male adventure to which women are not admitted.[1] Yet the grins and perfectly positioned pipes in this picture hold the key to yet another understanding of the photo: its self-consciousness. With their direct look at the still photographer’s camera and their gleeful pose, these men are undoubtedly playing for the camera. Rather than suggesting a disruptive parody of gender exclusivity, however, the ludic performance here seems to both acknowledge and re-enact that exclusivity, as if the two recognize that The Four Feathers production, the narrative it tells, and their own inscription under the “sign” of the film are all constructed within a longer representational history of imperial and settler masculinities that has adventure and play at its core.[2]

The ideologies of empire constructed in the literature and popular culture of masculine adventure and play were extensive throughout Britain’s self-governing and former settler colonies, including the United States, and tracing discourses of imperial adventure reveals some of the distinctive articulations of empire, colonialism, and national identity that have taken place in settler states. Schoedsack and Cooper’s performance in this picture is but one clue to the existence of a long and complex American relationship with British imperialism that took place even in the context of the post-revolutionary United States. The Four Feathers production is based on a famous British imperial novel whose iconography of male soldier-heroes is self-consciously recreated in the still,[3] but this reconstitution is produced in a recently colonized landscape, the Cathedral City area, in which white settlers displaced Native Americans. While the film and still imply a foundational relationship to Britain as “mother country” for the original American settler colonies, they also remind us that post-revolutionary white settlers and their descendants continued to colonize Native American land and develop their own ideology of adventure and masculinity (for example, in the settler literature of Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper). Yet however much the tradition of American frontier adventure sought to legitimize itself in contradistinction to the Old World that had preceded it, it was nonetheless implicated in the wider context of the British empire from which it sought to distance itself, by virtue of the fact that empire created similar pioneering settler narratives in other settler colonial contexts too.[4]

The production still from The Four Feathers and the colonial encounters that surround it can help us to understand the particular qualities of the United States as a settler culture; moreoever, they help us see cinema’s role in continuing to shape that culture across the twentieth century. In this essay I show some of the ways that a Hollywood film and its contexts reflect settler coloniality’s ambivalence in its reliance on, and distance from, the imperial culture that created it: looking beyond the diegetic narrative of The Four Feathers reveals tensions that are typical to the cinemas of postcolonial settler states. As Jon Stratton has argued, locating the cultural production of the United States as postcolonial in this way can reveal how “the United States [has been] forced to confront its own history as a settler society and to deal with the same problems of displacement, identity, and the experience of living in an Other’s land that are a part of the histories of other English-speaking settler societies, including Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia.”[5] The encounters that Merian C. Cooper forged in the making of his film also reveal the anomalous position of the United States with respect to the other settler colonies: that is, the way in which it has also established itself as an imperial power in its own right. The Cooper persona, as a discursive construct, perfectly expresses such apparent contradictions and reveals a U.S. settler coloniality constituted through an historical and cultural relationship to British imperial history, to settler practices within the colony, and to U.S. political, military, and cultural hegemony in a globalizing frame.

The Four Feathers demonstrates how encounters between filmmakers, locations, filmed subjects, and audiences create a composite “text” whose settler coloniality is transnational in scope. The practices that constitute this coloniality are material and discursive and include histories of British imperial culture, colonial travel, ethnographic filmmaking, on-location production, and settler transformation of landscape. Yet it is through such colonial encounters that discourses of nation are also constituted; the construction of Cooper as an American figure of heroic masculinity is but one example of this. Taken together, such practices allow us to see the ways in which British colonialism produced common realities and concerns across the new settler societies. In this essay, I place Cooper and Schoedsack’s production of The Four Feathers within a long tradition of settler, white masculinity with which Cooper especially was engaged. In turning to the many materials that were produced by and about Cooper during his film production career and beyond, I analyze the film’s relationship to gender, race, and settler coloniality. Instead of recentering the film through its author, I here place film and authorial figure alongside each other and read both in relation to the many extra-textual materials that surround them. [6] Consequently, The Four Feathers photo described above is key, rather than tangential, to my analysis here for it further establishes the distinctive settler coloniality of the film, a context that is lost if one attends only to its narrative conventions.

Cooper, settler masculinity, and the imperial frame

The Four Feathers was the third filmed version of Mason’s novel, following two earlier silent versions in 1915 (U.S.) and 1921 (France). The film follows the history of Lieutenant Harry Feversham (Richard Arlen) whom we first see as a small boy cowed by his father’s war stories. As the plot moves forward in time, we find the adult officer Feversham, having just decided to marry his fiancée, Ethne (Fay Wray), celebrating with his officer friends, Trench, Castleton, and Durrance. A courier interrupts to bring Feversham orders to depart for the Sudan (here the film, like Mason’s novel, was based on historical events; Britain’s General Charles Gordon was killed in 1885 and the film is set a decade later, when British and Egyptian troops attempted to recover the Sudan from Mahdist forces). Feversham reads his marching orders, then surreptitiously throws them into the fire, telling his friends he will resign his commission on account of his marriage. As he does so, however, one of his fellow officers finds and reads the letter, which has failed to ignite. Accusing him of cowardice, each of the three sends him the gift of a white feather, the symbol of a coward; a fourth comes from Ethne when she learns what he has done. Traumatized, Feversham decides to redeem himself and travels to Sudan alone, disguises himself as an Arab, and rejoins his comrades after committing brave feats that save them from certain death. After the British forces almost suffer defeat when their famous square battle formation is broken, Feversham helps them defeat the Fuzzy Wuzzies.[7] Returning to England, he reclaims Ethne’s hand and the respect of his friends.

As we shall see, Cooper himself embodied aspects of this heroic imperial narrative.
His personal history lent itself to all kinds of mythologizing, and historical records reveal a persona created both by public discourses and by Cooper’s own settler self-fashioning. Cooper’s biography also became a key element in the promotion of The Four Feathers and, more than that, became part of a complex construction of Cooper as a “star text” that also incorporated travel narratives and other items discussed below. Cooper came from a family whose role in the southern colonies was historically significant and bound up with a militaristic version of settler masculinity. Stories of military prowess were passed down through the generations of Cooper cavalrymen, making their effect felt on Cooper, who (like Feversham) grew up with a sense of masculinity as something molded by toughness and military bravery.[8] “The notion that one’s manhood was best forged in the crucible of battle,” writes biographer Mark Cotta Vaz, “was a long-standing Cooper family tradition” (p. 11). In I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (U.S.A. 2005), the documentary about Cooper made for Turner Movie Classics, David Strohmaier suggests: “Merian C. Cooper was a little bit on the short and stocky side, and he wanted to compensate for this. So he worked out a lot, he would swim rivers, he would do all kinds of things that other kids couldn’t do, because he really knew he wanted this life of adventure and exploration.”[9] In the same documentary, archivist James V. D’Arc suggests that “Cooper being a timid child and then turning out to be the most robust of explorers certainly fits within the American character, at least the American character that’s championed at this time, the turn of the century in the United States.” And in an historical interview excerpted in the documentary, Cooper himself relates: “I was a little timid boy, put that on your tape if you want, and made myself be a champion boxer and wrestler, and fought three successful wars. I’m King Kong!” Crucially, Cooper’s comment attests not just to his dedication to a corporeal self-transformation in his youth but it also reveals a careful construction of a related star persona at the time of the interview – “put that on your tape!” His self-conscious performance for his interviewer is closely related to his performance for the still photographer’s camera in 1929: Cooper, indeed, was a self-made man behind and before the camera. D’Arc insightfully notes how this fantasy of self-transformation becomes part of the American national character in the 1920s, but as well as being national, the fantasy is also raced and gendered and perpetuates constructions of whiteness and masculinity that characterized the United States in the 1920s.

Theodore Roosevelt, for example, embodied the same ideals with his endorsement of “the strenuous life” as a model for Americans.[10]  Roosevelt’s masculine persona provoked the nickname “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” for one of the fighting units that embarked on the Spanish American War at the turn of the century. As national figures of heroic masculinity, Roosevelt’s troops thus furthered America’s nascent imperial interests in war while the construction of Roosevelt himself drew upon the self-transformational qualities of American masculinity. Indeed, as Gaylyn Studlar has shown with respect to Douglas Fairbanks and American masculinity in the 1920s, Roosevelt’s ideal of “the strenuous life” was based on his sense that essential qualities of masculinity were being lost and that the nation was in danger of growing “old and soft and unwilling to endure hardships.” To compensate, American men had to “stave off the effeminacy” that followed such degeneration.[11] Tellingly, this is the same language that accompanies some of Cooper’s own protestations (Marguerite Harrison once remarked that Cooper was “disdainful of all the refinements of life which were ‘soft’ in his opinion”)[12] and it also evokes the charges that are turned toward Harry Feversham by his father in The Four Feathers.[13]  Studlar shows how masculinity became an object of U.S. national anxiety in the 1920s and an emphasis on the reform of boy culture reverberated throughout the United States. Answering these concerns, the star roles of Douglas Fairbanks stressed “adventurous, dangerous journeys” in “‘uncivilized’ parts of the United States or in foreign lands.”[14]  Fairbanks’s persona thus articulated the very conditions of filmmaking and representation that Cooper prized so highly.[15]

But what is national in Studlar’s analysis is definitively a matter of transnational settler masculine ideologies, too. The qualities of toughness, bravery, and the ability to use strenuous activity to define one’s masculinity are qualities that attach to pioneers and other settler representatives and one can trace them across new world settler colonies in ways that authors in other disciplines have examined.[16] What is particularly interesting in the case of Cooper, however, is how the performance of a certain kind of raced white masculinity in fact exceeds the bounds of settler identifications and becomes performatively imperial in its scope and ambitions. That is, rather than embodying the resourceful, canny, pioneering masculinity of a Longstocking or similar American frontier hero, Cooper both embraced – and was publicly produced as – a figure more like Biggles, the heroic flying ace, adventurer, and explorer of imperial British literature.[17]  After he was forced to resign from the Naval Academy he attended before the war, reportedly for his own anarchic behavior, Cooper set out to redeem himself in the eyes of his brother and father by enlisting to fight in Europe. His exploits there as a bomber pilot and then prisoner of war not only fulfilled the kinds of imperial masculine heroism that he had read about but also provided the material for a later mythologizing of these very qualities as part of the Cooper public persona. When he was first shot down in Germany, Cooper reportedly prepared to jump to his death from his burning plane after his hands and lips were badly burned. But seeing his co-pilot alive and injured, he returned to his cockpit, performed a clever maneuver that extinguished the flames, and landed the plane, all the while using his elbows and knees to control the machine. He remained in a prison hospital for the rest of the war and then was captured again a few years later on active voluntary service with a Polish squadron fighting the Soviets. On that occasion, he managed to escape from the camp, and during his flight killed a guard in the manner that he had learned from Mason’s novel, The Four Feathers.[18]  The book was one of four that he had been able to take into his German camp with him and, according to Vaz, Cooper formed a strong identification with the character of Feversham (p. 63).

Such exploits and narratives are stressed in all the public materials about Cooper, including the recent lionizing of him in I’m King Kong! and Vaz’s biography. A cartoon-style biographical piece by American cartoonist Stookie Allen, in the New York Daily Mirror in 1934 (fig. 2), depicts Cooper in various heroic and dramatic poses: as his aircraft is shot down; as he, bare-chested and buff, scales the walls of his Russian prison; as he crouches with Schoedsack and their camera before a tiger in Chang (1927); and wearing a pith helmet, as he holds a baboon.[19]  The imagery draws heavily on the adventure tradition of British imperial culture and, even in its layout and iconography, resembles the kind of “Boy’s Own” or Biggles imagery that circulated around the empire; Cooper, as a persona, becomes inseparable from that kind of imperial narrative.

The imperialist qualities that this settler and his culture produced were precisely the qualities of masculinity that the empire sought to foster and that Britain, like the United States, thought itself to be losing during the early years of the twentieth century. [20] Jock Phillips, writing of P?keh? or settler masculinity in New Zealand, argues that for European New Zealand men in the early 1900s, fighting in the Boer War [21]  solidified ties to empire but also demonstrated the positive qualities of manhood that the colonies could produce. “In England the effect of the Boer War had been to produce anxieties in the ruling class about national decline. There was a fear that the urban life was producing a physical deterioration in British manhood, which would serve the country ill in the Social Darwinist struggle with other races. In this context the relative success of the colonials [as fighting troops] was a reassurance…they saw in them a safeguard for the race’s future.”[22] Phillips thus distinguishes between the kind of manliness that was forged in the colonies, which tended at times to the anarchic (here one might note Cooper’s expulsion from the Naval Academy for just such behavior), and the “imperial virility” that Empire encouraged, a virility that still suggested “a reaffirmation of [the New Zealanders’] pioneering past” but which “sought to substitute the language of the frontier with different language – with terms like honour, duty, valour, self-sacrifice, loyalty, courtesy… to fight honorably became the essence of manliness.”[23]

Molded thus, Cooper’s public persona as adventurer was also combined with a self-construction as an ethnographic reporter-cum-filmmaker. Between 1922-23, Cooper took part in an Indian Ocean nautical expedition on the yacht Wisdom II, skippered by Captain Edward Salisbury. Ernest Schoedsack also joined the expedition as cameraman, and together he and Cooper documented the expedition’s Abyssinian itinerary in three articles for Asia: Journal of the Asiatic Society which appeared in 1923. In these and other texts, Cooper actively produced a spectacular Africa for his American readers. Cooper and Schoedsack shot footage for a film that was never made[24]  and Salisbury and Cooper published a book that Cooper claimed he wrote himself;[25]  lengthy passages are based on the Asia articles. The narration, visualization, and even political exploitation of this adventure are implicated in a much wider question of intersecting settler and imperial endeavors. One consequence of his trip and the good relations he established with the Abyssinian prince, Ras Tafari, was that Cooper hoped to make himself a bureaucratic liaison between the U.S. government and Abyssinia for the purpose of economic exploitation. Cooper produced a ten-page report titled “Outline of Plan for the Development of Concessions in Abyssinia” which made the case to the state department for U.S. capital investment. “American capital and American business men would take over control of the future development of all the natural resources of Abyssinia not heretofore granted to others,” wrote Cooper, and specified minerals and oils, cotton, and coffee, among the available commodities. Cooper proposed that he himself would be the liaison for this venture and proposed a salary and ten percent of its stock.[26]

Such encounters between imperial and settler colonial histories and discourses are evidence of the tendency of many settler societies, but especially the United States, to produce their own imperial encounters within and beyond the shores of the settler colony itself. In the case of the United States, the tension between sameness and difference from the imperial culture that created it has been historically expressed in a colonized relationship to a British past, a colonizing relation to indigenous Americans, and a widening imperial role outside of the space of immediate settlement. As Mishra and Hodge have pointed out with respect to Australia, other settler societies developed their own cultures of imperialism (in Australia’s case, by an imperial presence within Pacific territories)[27]  but among the former British settler colonies it is with the United States that this tendency has been most pronounced. While expeditions like Cooper’s above produced an imperial knowledge of a place other to the settler colony, by their narration in popular form such expeditionary sites become deeply implicated in settler national discourses. By creating a co-extensive colonial space that draws together settler society and the elsewhere of adventure, the putting-into-narrative of voyages like Cooper’s functions to shore up the home settler environment by rearticulating relations of gender, race, and spatial conquest for a reading or viewing audience.[2]

The encounters that I have traced thus far are not simply episodes in a colorful life, as Vaz’s biography and I’m King Kong! would have them. Rather, they are integral to the Cooper persona as a settler construct: a figure of white masculinity who makes himself through an engagement with two intersecting empires: the British empire which helped mold the role of settler in the first place and the nascent American imperium which had begun to emerge during Cooper’s own lifetime and which underpinned his adventures, both filmic and aeronautical.[29]

The Four Feathers: imperial narratives and settler encounters

Given what I have outlined so far regarding Cooper and Schoedsack’s histories of travel and the complex discursive contexts of their work, the publicity still for The Four Feathers in fig. 3 becomes all the more meaningful. The image shows Cooper and Schoedsack mock-dueling over the figure of actress Jean Arthur, carrying swords and shields modeled after those of the “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” As another performance of masculinity, like the one that opened this chapter, this image appears further charged with a familiar triangular drama of heterosexual rivalry, as the two men fake a duel for possession of a woman. The cultural centrality, and importance of, such a triangular structure, has been radically and productively rethought by Eve Sedgwick in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Drawing on the work of literary theorist René Girard and anthropologist Gayle Rubin, Sedgwick brilliantly elucidates the way in which such triangles are in fact a structural means for shaping homosociality and for facilitating the contest and transfer of power relations between men. That Arthur herself did not in fact appear in the film (the hero’s love interest is played by Fay Wray) is only the most obvious corollary to understanding that the erotic drama that is played out here is not about her. Rather, the duel is a reminder that, in Sedgwick’s words, “in any male-dominated society, there is a special relationship between male homosocial (including homosexual) desire and the structures for maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power.” Arthur here inhabits a position that Sedgwick characterizes as an “exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men.”[30]  Such bonds were already invoked in the production of Grass where Schoedsack resented Harrison’s triangulating presence, preferring to keep the film’s masculine adventure between just two men.[31]

This still, like the one before it, reveals in its staged humor some of the underlying ideological principles of The Four Feathers. In this case, of course, the image unwittingly foreshadows the narrative drama of the film itself, in which the insult Feversham suffers from his friends precipitates a kind of homosocial rivalry in which he must prove his heroism and redeem the slight to his masculinity before winning the “prize” of the woman. He does so through physical combat with the Fuzzy Wuzzies whom Cooper and Schoedsack mock here.[32]  But as a staged, extra-filmic text in its own right, the production still reminds us of the real colonial travel beyond the narrative frame of The Four Feathers that was the inspiration for the still’s studio performance. Those extra-filmic encounters began with the African expedition that Cooper undertook in 1927 with Schoedsack and Ruth Rose, Schoedsack’s wife. Cooper had planned in advance for The Four Feathers to include the kinds of attractions that he and Schoedsack had become famous for – exotic locations and “primitive” tribes, encounters with wild animals, and adventure – and after Paramount had purchased the rights to Mason’s story, Cooper was able to devise a shooting program that was to include African material shot on location with studio work and further shooting in California. In 1927, Cooper, Schoedsack, and Rose travelled to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Sudan to shoot the African material for the film. No other Hollywood crew or actors accompanied them, which meant that the journey took on the small-scale expeditionary qualities of the travelogues or “safari adventure” films analyzed by critics like Amy Staples. Reminding us that many expeditionary films “continued to be framed in the heroic mode of mid to late-nineteenth century explorers, scientists, missionaries and others,” and that expeditionary “filmmakers were deeply influenced by the popular adventure books of Paul du Chaillu and Rider Haggard” (she might have been talking about Cooper, although he is not the focus of her essay), Staples addresses an archive of “travel books, autobiographies, photographs, and newspaper and magazine articles” that together constitute the particular kind of “film practice” of the travelogue. [33]

The Four Feathers trip, like Cooper’s other expeditions, generated its own archive of materials beyond the film footage itself. For example, it is described extensively in an article Cooper wrote for The National Geographic Magazine, published in 1929. Paramount released The Four Feathers in the same year and the two texts create colonial meanings for different types of audience – armchair ethnographers and popular moviegoers alike. The article, “Two Fighting Tribes of the Sudan,” concentrates on the second part of the group’s travels in the Sudanese terrain of the Messeria and Amarar tribes who are referred to in the essay’s title.[34]  The article does two important pieces of work. First, it extends the scope of Cooper and Schoedsack’s African encounters beyond their ostensible goal of film production and into a much wider practice of travel and ethnography. Cooper’s article is mostly focused on the historical relationships of the various tribes, their nomadic lifestyles, their clothing, and their rites and rituals, including the coming-of-age skirmishes with swords and stones that were the model for the mock-duel photograph staged back in the United States and referred to above. Indeed, the accompanying photographs for the article show many instances of the weaponry used by the tribes and the captions give descriptions of the various objects (p. 479). Other images and captions are evidence of the ways that a much longer history of colonial encounters structures Schoedsack’s photographs and Cooper’s text: some seem factual and ethnographically inquisitive (“Nubas keep their precious grain in a cylindrical storehouse. They make various dishes from durra (millet) and maize, but vary the menu with live, honey-covered flies and locusts,” p. 469) while others evidence a fascination with the exotic combined with a condescending racism (“In the Nazir’s eyes, these girls are beautiful,” reads the caption for a photograph of three young Messeria women, framed naked from the waist up, and wearing elaborate facial jewelry, pp. 472-73). The photographs and captions address a fascinated Western and educated reader but help also to produce a viewing position for The Four Feathers which will include such spectacles in its visual track, also allowing the Western viewer to contemplate in awe, and from a distance.

As well as adhering to well-established genres of ethnographic and imperial travel, the essay also exhibits an admiration of and complicity with British colonial rule. Cooper’s essay credits the British with making possible the entire expedition. Expressing incredulity at the peaceful nature of the terrain after years of “dervish rule” in which “all white men were slaves or prisoners,” Cooper reflects on the history of how a few British colonial administrators prevail over a peaceful terrain:

First came Kitchener’s great march – the complete defeat of the dervish army near Omdurman. Then, after this, came the British administrators. Courage, unshaken belief in their race and their caste, and rigid, absolute, unswerving, impeccable justice have given to these administrators this mastery over the war-like and still fanatically religious tribes of the Sudan.

It is because of this prestige of the white race which the British administrators have established that we…were able to live alone, without protection…among two of the most famous of the former fighting tribes.(pp. 465-66)

This passage explicitly racializes the colonial encounter between the British and Africans and, further to that racialization, it establishes these American visitors as heirs and beneficiaries of the hegemony of whiteness that is thus established. Moreover, the passage continues to enact and re-inscribe the very qualities of fanatical religiosity and warlike intent that were used to justify the British aggression towards the Sudanese tribes, even as it suggests that those conditions have been ameliorated by British force. It is important to note that this move on Cooper’s part does not effect an American presence despite an undesirable or anachronistic British imperialism but precisely because of and in complicity with it. In other words, the kind of pro-imperial sentiment evinced in Cooper’s essay runs counter to the standard narrative of American exceptionalism, which holds that the United States, in overturning British imperial control, embarked on a new ideal of democracy that rejected the imperial designs and excesses of British rule.

Such affinity for and complicity with British colonial rule, then, is not confined simply to the narrative of The Four Feathers with its story of imperial masculinity; it is embedded in the discourses that Cooper produced around this film and in the very relations of the production itself. As Cooper and Schoedsack traveled in Africa, their adventure-cum-production was assisted and enabled by British colonial authorities. For example, as a caption in the “Two Tribes” article describes, “When Britain called, the Fuzzy-Wuzzies came forth.” At British instigation, a group of more than 500 Amarar warriors rode into the vicinity of Cooper and Schoedsack’s camp to film a scene in which a final massed attack of Fuzzy Wuzzy warriors is staved off by Feversham’s bravery. “Though only a handful of white men rule this vast country,” explains the caption, “they have made the Empire’s name respected to the four corners.” Having explained for his readers the origin of the term “Fuzzy Wuzzy” by quoting Kipling’s poem, Cooper went on to mobilize it throughout the article, referring to the fact that these people “were to this very day sullen, quarrelsome, vindictive, and dangerous” but that after some initial reticence on this account, British authorities eventually agreed to allow the filmmakers to stay in the area (p. 485). The tale of imperial cooperation is redoubled by the images presented with this account, such as the photograph (fig. 4) that shows Cooper, in safari shirt and hat, and Schoedsack, wearing a British-style pith helmet, standing amid three camels with a “Fuzzy Wuzzy” at either side (p. 478). The caption has them “living among” the tribesmen, but the composition of the image and the demeanor of the two white men at its center seem to suggest a commanding white imperial presence that is consistent with the narrative of effective colonial administration that is the focus of the article.

The sense of white agency and control, also effected in the film’s ideal spectator position, is also profoundly articulated in Cooper’s accounts of his and Schoedsack’s travels in the earlier part of this expedition when they spent several months around the area of the Rovuma River at the border of what was then Tanganyika and Portuguese east Africa. It was here that they shot the animal scenes that are included in the finished film. Three scenes in particular made the film famous. As Feversham and his fellow officer, Trench, whom he has just rescued from the slave prison at Omdurman, flee from the slave trading camp where they are taken, a chase begins. A group of African men sets a fire in low scrub and grass (something which Cooper and Schoedsack actually did, burning off about twenty square miles of bush) that quickly develops and causes animals to flee its path. After some shots of the blazing surrounds, Cooper and Schoedsack’s camera cuts to a following scene in which a huge group of baboons tries to outrun the fire. As they attempt to cross a suspension bridge over a river, it gives way and they plunge to the water below. In this very river are Feversham and Trench, attempting to cross by canoe when a herd of hippopotami stampedes off a small cliff and into the water, almost capsizing their small craft. These scenes were crucial to the promotion of the film and helped make the film’s production distinctive: by connecting the African footage to his local footage, Cooper further conjoined the imperial with the settler colonial. As Cooper proudly recounted, “this was the first picture in history where people had gone into the wilderness of Africa to shoot scenes to intercut with Hollywood scenes.” His fuller account, many years later, introduces the familiar tropes of brave imperial travel or safari adventure with the excitement of Hollywood production:

It was the dry season and the Rovuma river was pretty well dried up except for huge pools filled with hippopotami and crocodile. The nearest white man was a Portuguese Sergeant a few days trek away.… One day I saw a hippo tuck his squat little legs under him and dive off a bank about twenty feet high. As a result Schoedsack and I decided to capture a lot of hippos and run them over a bank and photograph them. It taxed our ingenuity, but we succeeded, and got some really remarkable shots which you will probably recall. Schoedsack and I unfortunately lost three men, as I remember it, in accomplishing this! We would have lost our interpreter if I hadn’t rescued him myself, after he and I were knocked over in our canoe by a mother hippo.[35]

Cooper’s bluster and bravado here seems not all diminished – perhaps perversely amplified in the rhetoric of this account – by the death of the Africans who were present to assist. Later in this letter he explains how the baboon sequences were created in a similar manner; hundreds of animals were amassed and forced over the suspension bridge, which was then cut. The baboons fell into the river, with Schoedsack’s camera recording the fall and little moments of drama in close-up, such as young baboons scrambling for rocks midstream. This sequence, like the hippo series that follows it, occupies a prominent place in the film and Cooper relates with pride that “not one baboon was killed that I know of” in the “remarkable sequence.”[36]  In both cases, shooting was preceded by lengthy and elaborate preparations that further embedded Cooper in the racialized dynamics of the safari (he spent approximately three months researching and documenting the baboons’ lifestyles) and the imperial encounter. During the phase when the hippos were being trapped, Cooper noticed that one of his African helpers was missing. Furious at the disruption and the challenge to his authority, Cooper responded by using a rhinoceros-hide bullwhip to lash every villager he could find.[37] The result, he said, was full compliance for the remainder of the shoot.

“Exploiting” Africa

While European imperialism in Africa permitted the actual extraction of natural resources like rubber or diamonds for the sake of metropolitan desires, this American filmmaking team exploited labor, animal life, and landscape for the audiences of their film. But the promotional materials that Paramount produced for this film remind us of a different, no less relevant sense of “exploitation.” Paramount’s press book for the film, which included promotional materials such as poster designs that exhibitors could order, lobby display ideas, and press releases laid out as newspaper articles, includes a banner headline called “Practical exploitation for every showman.” Under this headline are many ideas for how to jazz up a lobby, sell tickets, or tie-in with local authorities, institutions, or people (for example, using “a monkey on a string, led by a small colored boy with a sign,” to entice patrons to the lobby; planting a local newspaper story, ostensibly about the local zoo’s baboons but really about the film and its animal scenes; hiring a bagpiper; or partnering with a book-store selling the novel). Many of these promotional materials further enact the kinds of discourse of imperial allegiances that were created around the film and its formative expeditions. For example, some press material included in the book further underscored how the British imperial administration in Africa made possible what the Americans alone could not. The book included a story in which Cooper recounted the marshalling of the Amarar warriors. “Repeated calls through their African interpreters produced only a handful of extras. ‘We waited a week, offered presents and more pay,’ relates Schoedsack, ‘but the blacks refused to budge. If it hadn’t been for the help of courteous English officers, to whom we appealed, we might still be tempting Fuzzy Wuzzys to appear before our camera.’”[38]

The language of “daring” and “thrills” that was used throughout the press book was combined with an evocation of exotic setting and with a citation of earlier films. “Beau Geste and Chang combined!” exclaims one poster (fig. 5), drawing together the popularity of the Foreign legion drama starring Gary Cooper that Paramount had released in 1926 with Cooper and Schoedsack’s earlier film. “Two years in the making, with locations extending from Hollywood to the dark jungles and burning sands of Africa. Thrill to the wild charge of a host of natives on racing camels! See the amazing fight at the desert fort…a hundred brave soldiers against thousands of savage natives.” The images that went with such tag lines included turban-clad Arabs, massed African fighters with the shields and swords that Cooper and Schoedsack used in the dueling publicity still discussed above and that Cooper had revealed in his National Geographic essay, and British troops at the ready to defeat them.

Even though romance was also a part of the film’s promotion, the role of Fay Wray and of the love plot of the film were most often made secondary to the imagery and catch-cries of empire, adventure, and masculinity. This observation returns us to the staged, mock duel in the photograph that I have analyzed above. Its structured homosocial relation reminds us that what was key to the encounters around Cooper and The Four Feathers – and, I am arguing, was one important element of settler masculinity more generally – is the question of “playing empire.”

‘Tying it all together:’ playing empire in settler space

It was Cooper’s point of pride that in The Four Feathers, location footage from Africa was cut together with material filmed in a Hollywood studio. Cooper “tied it all together by building an integrating location between Palm Springs and Indio, about six miles from the road.”[39]  While publicity materials did not make so much of this tactic, it is something Cooper himself talked about in letters, interviews, and other venues and it became part of his narrative of how he thought King Kong might be possible. “We built a fort there and I built a camp…for about 1800 people, and we shot up there about a month,” he explained.[40]  To do so, Cooper and Schoedsack also had to create new footage to match what they had shot of the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” in the Sudan, where British colonial administrators had orchestrated the arrival of hundreds of warriors with weapons. In these key sequences, Richard Arlen’s character of Feversham fights to defend the fort against the onslaught of Africans as the Scottish regiment of British forces arrives to save them. While the African footage contained shots of the hundreds of warriors staging a charge, together with some close-ups and medium shots, the hand to hand combat and shots with Arlen and other white actors had to be done locally, for the team took no actors with them to Africa (Cooper occasionally stood in for Arlen there). For the new, matching footage, then, Cooper and Schoedsack turned their earlier Four Feathers production encounter – of white settler Americans engaging imperial authorities and colonized Africans – into one between white settler Americans and African Americans. In Cooper’s words they “hired a thousand dark boys from Central Avenue [Los Angeles] and put wigs on them – they looked just the same as the Fuzzy-Wuzzies – they charged out and hit the square.”[41]  In the only published historical accounts where this episode is mentioned, Brownlow’s program notes and Vaz’s chapter on the film in Living Dangerously,[42]  its implications go unremarked upon. But the fact of this production detail and the nature of its characterization by Cooper and Schoedsack is, like the matter of location itself, important for understanding the film as a specifically settler encounter within a history of empires.

Invoking Central Avenue places Cooper’s account within the geopolitics of the Los Angeles basin in which the effective segregation of neighborhoods was (and is) a shorthand way of mapping the city’s racial composition.[43]  In this way, Cooper’s joke registers a contemporary racial politics of the settler state through the narrative of a much earlier imperial encounter. But more importantly, the Four Feathers production engagement creates a complex kind of racial “passing” in which the histories of colonialism and slavery within the former American colonies and in the post-revolutionary United States – histories that are enacted in Cooper’s casting and production activities – are re-connected to their roots in British imperialism through the narrative device of the film. As African Americans play Sudanese in a recreated colonial drama, a white American racial history and narrative are inserted back into the colonial contest. The collapsing of race between the settler society and Cooper’s African encounters is further exemplified by the numerous comments about racial inferiority that Cooper developed in his own imperially organized travel. For example, his accounts of his first voyage to Africa mention that when he first saw Abyssinians in the desert he remarked to a Wisdom companion, “The books say these fellows aren’t niggers, but they look like the same darky breed we have at home.”[44]  In this comment, a construction of race within white settler culture in the United States is transposed to Africa, where Cooper makes “sense” out of what he sees by applying racist language that he brought from “home.” Yet his later production activities in California bring the imperial versions of racial classification and ordering forged in Africa back into a local frame in the form of a narrative of empire produced within settler colonial space. The historical record here demonstrates the ways that Cooper created a co-extensive space of colonial meaning, one in which racialization proceeded according to imperial histories he engaged within Africa and settler histories as they were constructed in the United States. While in Abyssinia, Cooper developed the idea that the Abyssinian nobles with whom he fraternized were of a different racial category than the “negroid” peoples they ruled; the rulers’ blackness was that of a noble “mixed Hamito-semitic people” (p. 110). In hoping that these nobles would resist the dilution of their own by negroid blood, Cooper made it clear that, in his view, “the negro race has always been, and will continue to be, an inferior one, incapable of self-government” (pp. 111-12). Thus Cooper effectively elevated the black ruling class within Abyssinia to a higher racial category; the African Americans he employed on his set, the “darky breed we have at home,” were those inferior under Abyssinian as well as white settler racialized discourse.

The complex scene of racial passing that was constructed at the fort near Cathedral City and Indio is connected to the other major dislocation in these sequences, which concerns landscape. Here, too, the film’s editing juxtaposes scenes of landscape organized by a U.S. history of settler encounters with sequences that, as we have seen, relied upon British imperial expansion in Africa. The innovation of Cooper’s editing here renders a contiguous colonial space out of the profilmic material of colonized California and colonized Africa, cementing California (controlled by Spain and then Mexico before the U.S.) within a longer history of British imperial and settler encounters as it is made to “play” Africa. The area of Indio (its very name evocative of prior indigenous presence) was a constitutive part of the diegetic “wilderness” that Hollywood’s westerns had, by the 1920s, already constructed as a tabula rasa for white enterprise and settlement; such landscapes were in reality sites of indigenous belonging and meaning. Settler-colonized landscapes have historically been particularly malleable to such a doubled representation, often yielding to conventions established by the colonizer in another place (Bunn, for example, argues that pictorial representations of such landscapes often involve “an exaggerated form of anaclisis, or ‘propping,’ of one landscape paradigm upon another”).[45]  In The Four Feathers, California is thus reinscribed through conventions developed in another, African landscape that was subject to British colonization and to Cooper and Schoedsack’s camera.

In conclusion I want to return to two of the production stills that I have analyzed above. Since this essay ends in the American desert, it also ends back in Cooper’s camp where “no ladies [are] allowed” and not far from the studio where Cooper and Schoedsack duel like Fuzzy Wuzzies over Jean Arthur’s body. In both these scenes of settler masculinity, a narrative of empire is constructed and performed that wishes away the realities of settler colonial expansion, settlement, and racial ordering within the colony and post-colony itself. In The Four Feathers and especially in the encounters that took place around it, as Cooper and Schoedsack efface local specificities in their reconstructed African adventure they simultaneously reveal some of the limits not of a straightforward or intrinsically American cultural identity but, I have argued, of an identity that is settler colonial in nature, one that is connected to other settler identities through histories of British imperialism.

Research for this essay was supported by the Senate Committee on Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of James V. D’Arc at Brigham Young University; images 1-4 are courtesy of the Merian C. Cooper Papers, BYU Special Collections. This essay was greatly improved by the generous feedback of faculty colleagues at UC Santa Cruz, the careful reading of Anitra Grisales, and the keen and attentive comments of two anonymous reviewers.


Fig. 1.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.


[1] In fact, on the African shoot which is described below, Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose Schoedsack, accompanied them.
[2] The literature on masculinities, adventure and empire is extensive. See, for example, Richard Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London and New York: Routledge, 1994); Jeffery Richards, ed., Imperialism and Juvenile Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989); Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure (London: Routledge, 1997).
[3] A.E.W. Mason, The Four Feathers (1902).
[4] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, 2nd. ed (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 135.
[5] Jon Stratton, “The Beast of the Apocalypse: The Postcolonial Experience of the United States,” in Postcolonial America, ed. C. Richard King, 21-64 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 51.
[6] There is much to be said about the figure of Schoedsack in relation to constructions of masculinity in this film and others. As David Mould and Gerry Veeder show in “‘The Photographer-adventurers:’ Forgotten Heroes of the Silent Screen,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 16, no. 3 (1988): pp. 118-29 Schoedsack was one in a line of figures whose photographic exploits gave them “minor cult status until the mid-1930s” (118). (See also Alison Griffiths, Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-century Visual Culture (New York: Columbia, 2002): pp. 268-70). Just as Mould and Veeder’s essay is slanted more towards Schoedsack as adventurer-photographer, the current essay concentrates more on Cooper, for his public construction was even more visible and extensive than was Schoedsack’s.
[7] The term “Fuzzy Wuzzy” originated with Rudyard Kipling. Cooper suggests it refers to the Amarar, one of the Sudanese “Red Sea Hills” peoples and, in an article about the Sudan discussed further below, quotes four relevant lines from Kipling’s poem which refer to their “‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air” and the famous battle in which they “broke a British square!” The British square was the defensive formation used by the British army in Africa; its rupture in battles with the Sudanese is the subject of Kipling’s satire and The Four Feathers’ climactic scenes. Merian C. Cooper, “Two Fighting Tribes of the Sudan,” National Geographic Magazine, 56, no. 4 (1929), p. 484.
[8] Mark Cotta Vaz, Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper (New York: Villard, 2005), pp. 11-13. Further references appear in text.
[9] The documentary was produced as part of a DVD re-issue: King Kong: Two-disc Collector’s Edition (Turner Entertainment Co., 2005).
[10] Theodore Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life (New York: Century, 1901).
[11]  Roosevelt, quoted in Gaylyn Studlar, This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 26.
[12]  Marguerite Harrison, There’s Always Tomorrow: The Story of a Checkered Life (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1935), p. 572; qtd. in Vaz, p.109.
[13]  The 1939 version of the film has Feversham’s father pronouncing the memorable line: “the boy’s become too soft, we need to lick him into shape and make him hard again.” The evidence for his effeminacy is in part the boy’s taste for poetry.
[14] Studlar, pp. 51-52. See also Studlar, “Wider Horizons: Douglas Fairbanks and Nostalgic Primitivism,” in Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, eds., Back in the Saddle Again (London: B.F.I., 1998), pp. 63-76.
[15]  While Cooper embodied it more than many of his contemporaries, the connection between masculinity, adventure, and moviemaking was shared by others during the twenties: a review essay by David Denby suggests that directors Victor Fleming and Howard Hawks were also steeped in this kind of tradition. See David Denby, “The Real Rhett Butler,” New Yorker, 25 May, 2009, pp. 72-78. Available at (Accessed 27 November, 2009. Thanks to Amelie Hastie for bringing this article to my attention.)
[16]  See, for example, Jock Phillips A Man’s Country? The Image of the Pakeha Male – A History (Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin, 1987), Robert Morell, From Boys to Gentlemen: Settler Masculinity in Colonial Natal, 1880-1920 (Pretoria: University of South Africa, 2001).
[17]  W.E. Johns’s series of adventure novels drew on the growing importance of military air power and the concomitant rise of the fighter pilot as popular star. As Dennis Butts describes it, “the war in the air, with its opportunities for speed and individual combat, rapidly acquired a romantic glamour” and “a new word, the ‘ace’ was coined” for those who fought it. Dennis Butts, “Biggles – Hero of the Air,” in A Necessary Fantasy? The Heroic Figure in Children’s Popular Culture, ed. Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins, pp. 137-52 (New York and London: Garland, 2000), p. 138.
[18] The comparison is made explicit in the I’m King Kong! documentary, which uses a clip from the Four Feathers sequence to dramatize Cooper’s escape.
[19]  Stookie Allen, Cartoon, “Above the Crowd,” [New York] Daily Mirror, n.d. Merian C. Cooper Papers, L. Tom Perry special collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter cited as “Cooper papers.”). MSS 2008, Box 7, Folder 9.
[20] Johns himself could have been a model for Cooper: a former soldier, Johns joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and flew bombers over Germany until he was shot down in 1918. Like Cooper, he spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp.
[21]  The Boer War (1899-1902) was fought between British troops (which then included troops from the dominion settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand) and the Boer territories of South Africa which were Afrikaaner-dominated.
[22] Phillips, A Man’s Country?, p. 152.
[23] Phillips, A Man’s Country?, p. 156.
[24] While some accounts mention that a fire on the ship destroyed all the negatives, Brownlow and Vaz suggest that Schoedsack’s footage did survive, and Brownlow suggests that Salisbury used it for his films Ra-mu (1929) and Gow the Headhunter (1933). Vaz, pp. 105, 394; Kevin Brownlow, Program Notes for Cooper-Schoedsack and Friends, (accessed April 29, 2009).
[25] Edward A. Salisbury and Merian C. Cooper, The Sea Gypsy (New York and London: Putnam’s, 1924; Vaz, p. 83.
[26]  Cooper Papers, MSS 2008, Box 7, Folder 1; also, see Vaz, 106.
[27] See Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Post-colonial Mind(North Sydney: Allen, 2001), xiii. On the particular situation of the United States with regard to a complex settler and imperial formation, see C. Richard King, Postcolonial America, and Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back. See also Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).
[28] Cooper’s Abyssinian travels and the footage he and Schoedsack shot there were also important precursors for the making of the films Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and Chang (1927) which adopted many of the traditions of the travelogue and ethnographic film, traditions which also structure The Four Feathers. See Limbrick, Making Settler Cinemas: Film and Colonial Encounters in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).
[29]  The twin passions of film and flight drove Cooper’s later exploits and though I cannot further develop their connection here, for other work on film and aviation in early cinema, see Jeannette Delamoir, “Six Encounters with Aviators: Early Cinema, Fight, Danger, and Gender,” Screening the Past 22 (last updated 22 December 2007), See also Rosalie Schwartz, Flying Down to Rio: Hollywood, Tourists, and Yankee Clippers (College Station, T.X.: Texas A&M University, 2004).
[30] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 25-26.
[31] Vaz, 111.
[32] In Korda’s 1939 version of the film, the erotic triangle becomes even more literal as the film sets up a rivalry between Durrance and Faversham (his name spelled with an ‘a’ in the later film). The mopey Durrance pines for Ethne in an early scene, relinquishing her to Faversham; he then repossesses her after Faversham’s supposed death; and then finally moves aside in a gentlemanly manner when Faversham returns heroic from Africa.
[33] Amy J. Staples, “Safari Adventure: Forgotten Cinematic Journeys in Africa,” Film History 18 (2006), p. 393.
[34] Merian C. Cooper, “Two Fighting Tribes of the Sudan,” National Geographic Magazine, 56.4 (1929): pp. 465-86. Further references appear in text.
[35] Merian C. Cooper, letter to W. Douglas Burden, June 22, 1964, Cooper Papers, MSS 2008, Box 8, Folder 6, p. 2.
[36] Cooper to Burden, p. 3.
[37] Vaz, 166.
[38]Paramount Press Book for The Four Feathers (1929), Microfiche, British film institute library.
[39] Cooper to Burden, p. 3.
[40] Merian C. Cooper, interview with Rudy Behlmer, Cooper Papers, MSS 2024, Folder 3, p. 19.
[41] Brownlow, under The Four Feathers.
[42] Vaz quotes Schoedsack giving a similar account and also referring to the extras as “the boys from Central Avenue.” Living Dangerously, p. 173.
[43] Central Avenue, which runs from just west of downtown through the area now named South Central Los Angeles, was in the 1920s the cultural and commercial hub for a large black community and was famously the site of a thriving jazz scene. For many white Los Angeles residents the only point of connection to this area was Central Ave’s fame as a jazz district. The interviews in Central Avenue Sounds, ed. Clora Bryant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) give a vivid portrait of the social and cultural makeup of the area from the 1920s on. On the urban geography of Los Angeles see Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990).
[44] Salisbury and Cooper, The Sea Gypsy, p. 51. Further references appear in the text.
[45] David Bunn, “‘Our Wattled Cot:’ Mercantile and Domestic space in Thomas Pringle’s African Landscapes,” in W.J.T. Mitchell, ed., Landscape and Power, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 144. See also Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” in the same volume, and Nicholas Thomas and Diane Losche, eds., Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Created on: Tuesday, 22 December 2009

About the Author

Peter Limbrick

About the Author

Peter Limbrick

Peter Limbrick is an assistant professor in the department of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work has appeared in Cinema Journal, Journal of Visual Culture, and Camera Obscura. His book, Making Settler Cinemas: Film and Colonial Encounters in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.View all posts by Peter Limbrick →