A.E.W. Mason may not stand alongside Ernest Hemingway or even Rudyard Kipling in the hierarchy of academically respected novelists, but he can be credited with authorship of what is likely the most filmed novel of the 20th century, The Four Feathers. Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was born in London in 1865 and educated at Dulwich College and Trinity College, Oxford. He led the Dramatic Society at the latter school and was intent on a theatrical career, appearing in a small number of works on the London stage during the late 1880s. He also began writing in his spare time during this period -- his first novel was published in 1890, though it was a commercial failure. It was the success of his second book, The Courtship of Maurice Buckler (1896), that drew Mason into a writing career. He followed this up with Lawrence Clavering and The Philanderer (both 1897). Parson Kelly (1899), co-authored with Andrew Lang, and Clementina (1901) continued his record of success, and in 1901, one of his early books, Miranda of the Balcony, was produced as a play in New York. It was in 1902 that he wrote his most enduringly popular work, The Four Feathers. A tale of cowardice, heroism, duty, redemption, and sacrifice set amid the 1890s British military campaign in the Sudan, the book was an immediate success, and it was brought to the screen twice during the silent era alone. In 1906, Mason won a seat in Parliament as a Liberal member representing Coventry. He had just one novel published over the next four years, The Broken Road (1907), which had a tangible impact in real life -- in the book, Mason made an issue of the fact that members of the Indian Army weren't eligible for the Victoria Cross, England's highest military honor, and this policy was subsequently changed by the king. Mason left office in 1910, publishing that same year At the Villa Rose (1910), the first of his five "Inspector Hanaud" mystery novels, several of which were later filmed in England during the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote a novel each year through 1913, but his creative output was interrupted by more important matters with the outbreak of World War I.
Mason initially served as a major in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, but he subsequently transferred to the Admiralty; there he worked in naval intelligence, serving in Spain and Mexico, where he set up counter-espionage networks on behalf of the British government. He later used those experiences in espionage work as the inspiration for his 1920 novel The Summons, his first postwar book. The following year, he published his first non-fictional work, The Royal Exchange. These were heady times for Mason, who counted among his legions of fans no less a figure than England's King George V, who was a friend and one of his most avid readers. Mason's work began reaching the screen in movie adaptations in 1915 with the first version of The Four Feathers (directed by J. Searle Dawley), which was filmed again in 1921. By that time, the screen options to his books were being purchased with increasing regularity; his 1924 book The Winding Stair arrived on the big screen the following year. Yet another version of The Four Feathers was shot -- this time by a major American studio, Paramount, and filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who were subsequently responsible for King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game four years later, in 1929. Two new Inspector Hanaud books, The House of the Arrow (1924) and The Prisoner in the Opal (1928), were forthcoming, along with the novels The Watchers and The Winding Stair (both 1924) and No Other Tiger. In 1929, there appeared the first of the film versions of the Hanaud stories, Mystery of the Villa Rose, from France, which was followed a year later by a British adaptation.
During the 1930s, Mason's fiction output slackened, though several of his works did appear in screen adaptations, including The House of the Arrow (1930), The Flirting Widow (1930), Her Imaginary Lover (1933), and The Widow From Monte Carlo (1936). Mason also wrote his only screenplay for the Alexander Korda production of Drums (1937), which he published as the novel The Drum. This story was a rousing, Kipling-like adventure set in contemporary India, dealing with uprising and rebellion and a native prince caught between two worlds and forced into hiding. Mason's novel Fire Over England (1936) was made into a film the year after it was published, at Korda's London Films under the auspices of producer Erich Pommer. A stirring adventure yarn set during the reign of Elizabeth I during the time of the Spanish Armada, the movie starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (who fell in love during the production), Flora Robson, Morton Selten, Leslie Banks, and Raymond Massey, and was photographed by James Wong Howe. Two years later, London Films and director Zoltan Korda brought what is usually considered the definitive version of The Four Feathers to the screen, starring John Clements, Ralph Richardson, and June Duprez. Partly shot on location in the Sudan, and in Technicolor (stunningly utilized by location cinematographer Osmond Borradaile), this film version offered a strange case of life catching up with art, for in recruiting thousands of locals to appear in the picture, Korda found men in their sixties who had witnessed and even participated in the actual battles covered by Mason's book -- Korda would later remake the movie in 1955 as Storm Over the Nile and there were two further movie versions, in 1977 and 2002. Two of the Hanaud books were also made into films three times (or more) each between 1929 and 1953.
Mason himself turned increasingly toward nonfictional historical subjects for his work after the mid-'30s, publishing The Life of Francis Drake in 1941. An avid sailor and mountaineer, he was still climbing at the age of 81. He died at 83 while in the midst of working on a book about the life of Admiral Robert Blake (1598-1657). Along with The Four Feathers, the Hanaud books have bounced in and out of print in the decades since because of their reputation among mystery fans, and Fire Over England has also reappeared in hardcover in the United Kingdom. The film adaptations of the Hanaud stories have largely disappeared, especially on the American side of the Atlantic where they've not been seen for decades, but three of the seven film versions of The Four Feathers to date, from 1939, 1977, and 2002, are still extant.