Men at Work: Constructing and Deconstructing National Myths

The Four Feathers (1939) is imperialistic, supports the mythologies of class structure at home and “Rule Britannia” abroad, and has an action-oriented narrative to stir the blood of the patriot. Chocolat (1988) is post-colonial, deconstructs myths of national and racial superiority, and has an introspective narrative to stir the mind of the intellectual.   Despite the differences in these films and their national politics, they have similar gender politics: Both support the myth of “manly hearts to guard the fair” (Thomson), create visual pleasure through displays of the male body, and fetishize the male body for male and female viewers.

Four Feathers is a consciously ideological film that literally waves the flag and uses a period setting to promote an active military response to the challenges of Hitler.   Realism, or more accurately, considering the decision to use red instead of blue for the uniforms, the appearance of realism, supports the ideology. The appearance of realism is established by the objective opening sequence, and maintained throughout with titles, conventional camera angles, shots, and editing, panoramas loaded with sharp focus detail, and the integration of the fictional narrative into the authentic Mahdist Revolt of Egyptian Sudan.

Myths of class structure are reinforced by portraying the upper class as dedicated to serving their country, sacrifice, and tradition while the lower class are portrayed as interested in sex, children, and serving their masters.   Myths of racial superiority are naturalized in the narrative, and visually reinforced in the battle scenes where Mahdist fighters raggedly and pointlessly charging toward neat rows of calm, synchronized British troops.

Chocolat is a consciously post-colonial film that uses a first person flashback to revisit the past from a more knowledgeable and critical perspective, with an awareness that the past can never be completely known, let alone understood.   Counter cinema techniques, including unconventional camera angles and shots, narrative intransitivity, and non-continuity editing, support the critical approach of the narrative.   One sequence begins panning right on a plain wall to a close-up of Marc looking left, then stops, while an off screen voice speaks. Marc turns his head, looks briefly at the camera, and then looks right.   A cut to a longer shot shows Marc moving left to the speaker.   What he might have been looking at is unknown.

Myths of national and racial superiority are undercut by starting and ending the film in modern Cameroon.   In this context, the actions and attitudes of the characters during the flashback have an added measure of irony, foresight, or ignorance.   Elements of the narrative, including references to the late German colonists, question ideas of national superiority, and Mungo Park’s tale of returning to Africa and becoming a non-person is a declaration of the futility of relying on racial identity myths.

The narrative structure of Four Feathers is a series of actions that take the form of myth. Men can be brave or cowardly, and sacrifice of life or limb in battle is part of the natural order. The characters have no doubts, fears, or internal struggles as they carry out their duties.   Harry initially rejects fighting, but this is not a conflict between desire and obligation. He states his desire and obligation is to look after the family estate.   He becomes an impostor to serve his country and answer the feathers when he realizes he has chosen the wrong obligation.   Although he blames fear for leading him to the wrong choice, he is never seen in fear or overcoming it, despite the perils of his subsequent adventures.

Ethne is the only female character of any significance, and she is mostly passive.   Harry takes a feather from her, and John removes himself from the country when his romantic rival Harry returns.   Her two significant actions are to give a speech on the duties of her and Harry’s social class, and to remind Harry of his duty to answer the feather she let him take. She is the moral centre of the film with her reminders of duty and, as intermittent fiancé, she is a reward for the performance of duty.   Just as Joan Baez and her sisters posed for a later generation’s “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No” poster (Girls), Ethne illustrates the contemporary ideology for viewers of the film, and duty for female viewers: Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say Yes.

Chocolat largely rejects the binary opposites of myth.   The characters represent a variety of motivations, attitudes and loyalties, and Marc’s moral about the vanishing horizon explicitly denies the notion of opposites. Marc is a loyal government official, and dutiful husband and father, but his real love, expressed by other characters and revealed in the creative outlet of sketching, is the country. The Norwegian missionary serves his God, but leaves the colony out of loyalty to his wife. Delpich claims to be there for the money, while his native “housekeeper” is literally repressed romantic desire. Protée’s struggle between his obligation to serve Aimée and his desire for an intimate relationship with her is reflected in the mirror during the dressing sequence, and in other scenes such as the hyena threat, where she invites him into her bedroom to be a protector.

Events in Four Feathers drive the narrative, and show the characters steadfastly performing their duties, even as they endure external challenges and go blind, starve, or endure flogging.   The men in this film sacrifice their bodies in the name of duty.

Events in Chocolat are part of the imagery that represents recalled or assumed emotions, but the emotions are often related to an internal conflict between desire and duty. Protée represses his desire and rejects Aimée’s advance not because he has a goal of defending himself from his amorous mistress, but because he feels a relationship between them, though mutually desirable, is morally wrong and not consistent with his duty to serve.   Chocolat naturalizes the repression of desire, as anything that makes desire explicit, such as Marc’s journal, Luc’s statements, or eventually Protée’s mere presence, is hidden or driven out.   Like most of the men in the film, Protée sacrifices his desire in the name of duty. When he burns himself, it becomes a sacrifice of his body.

The gender politics are not surprising in the mythmaking narrative of Four Feathers, but are an inconsistency in the deconstructionalist approach of Chocolat.   Although the racial role of natives as servants is questioned, the gender role of men as servants (extensively explored by Warren Farrell) is reinforced. Protée stays awake through the night so Aimée she can sleep without fear of hyenas, and when she makes an inappropriate sexual advance, it is up to Protée to demonstrate the impropriety, and repress her feelings as well as his own.   Marc is supposedly a free man, but a servant to his country, and a servant to Aimée when he carries out her order to remove Protée from the house. The final scene of the film is men at work, presumably preparing the plane for France.

Both films promote sacrifice of the male body, and visually soften this threat by presenting the male body as a fetishized object of gaze.   Miriam Hansen[1] suggests inverting Laura Mulvey’s description of female object and male gaze, and it is a small step from there to suggest that the male body can be an object of gaze for all viewers.

Four Feathers shows male bodies subjected to physical extremes, and arranged and paraded about in uniforms, both of which serve to fetishize the male.   Many males on both sides are killed, but they are anonymous bodies.   Harry’s branding and flogging are fetishized by providing only the sounds and the reactions of others.

            Gaze in Chocolat starts with a fully dressed woman observing a man and a boy at the beach. The flashback is a female point of view, and reminders include Monique’s positive appraisal of Protée, and France and a female servant spying on Boothby through a window and commenting on his appearance.   They are in the dark observing him in a lit window, a setting not unlike a cinema. Luc and Protée are nude in shower scenes, and Aimée and France view Protée. At the beginning of the flashback, Protée and Marc are seen urinating.   In addition to the displays, there is fetishization through scenes that objectify men’s bodies, including the listing of body parts in the framing story and flashback, and the servant’s comments on Boothby’s skinny legs and body hair.

The Four Feathers constructs myths with men who unquestioningly do their duty and are rewarded, while Chocolat deconstructs myths with men who do their duty despite the lack of reward. In both cases, those hardworking male bodies are displayed for the viewer’s appreciation, and fetishized to lessen the threat of harm from sacrifices in the name of duty.   The patriot is no longer taken seriously, and the intellectual questions colonialism, but men are still expected to sacrifice their physical and emotional “hearts” to “guard the fair” from foreign hordes, obnoxious fathers, hyenas, and inappropriate sexual impulses.

Works Cited

Butler, Jeremy G. “The Star System and Hollywood.”   The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson.   Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.   342-353.

Chocolat. Dir. Claire Denis.   Le F.O.D.I.C. Cameroun et al., Orion Classics (USA distributor, 1989, English subtitles), France, West Germany, Cameroon, 1988.

Farrell, Warren.   The Myth of Male Power.   New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. rpt. New York: Berkley, 1994.

The Four Feathers.   Dir. Zoltan Korda. London Film Productions, MGM/UA (USA VHS and DVD). United Kingdom, 1939.

Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No. ca.1968. Poster. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. By Larry Gates, Online. Smithsonian American Art Museum.   Internet. 5 Feb. 2003.   Available: http://nmaa-ryder.si.edu/collections/exhibits/posters/objects/PP-post115_.html

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism.   4th ed. Ed. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Brady.   New York: Oxford UP, 1992.   746-757.

Thomson, James. “Rule Britannia.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1993. Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003. CD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft, 2003.

[1] Both theories are discussed and referenced in Butler, but I have not located the original article for Hansen, thus citations are provided for Mulvey and Hansen qtd. in Butler.

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

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