The Four Feathers (2002)
Director : Shekhar Kapur
Screenplay : Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Heath Ledger (Harry Faversham), Wes Bentley (Lt. Jack Durrance), Kate Hudson (Ethne Eustace), Djimon Hounsou (Abou Fatma), Michael Sheen (Trench), Lucy Gordon (Isabelle), Alex Jennings (Colonel Hamilton), Kris Marshall (Castleton), Rupert Penry-Jones (Willoughby)
The Four Feathers takes place in the late 19th century when the British empire spanned nearly a quarter of the globe. It is not surprising that so many screen versions of A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel have already been made (at last count, there have been at least seven, including two silent versions and a made-for-TV movie in the late 1970s starring Beau Bridges) because it is a tale of honor and heroism against all odds set against a backdrop of great colonial power, exactly the kind of story that makes colonialists sit back and feel assured that they have earned their imperialism.
Of course, at the beginning of the 21st century, colonialism has become nothing if not a nasty word, and the fact that this new version is not a self-conscious revisionist critique of colonial oppression is not what is disconcerting about it. In fact, that would have likely made for an awkward and obvious movie. Rather, what is disconcerting is the fact that the stage on which the story is set is taken for granted in a way that seems to suggest the filmmakers were afraid of dealing with it in any way. While earlier versions of this film celebrated the colonial powers of the British, using the story as a way to embrace the heroics of empire building, this new version simply accepts it and offers little if any subtext to suggest that the filmmakers have thought about it at all.
Of course, the violent melodrama and heroic theatrics of A.E.W. Mason's story are exactly the kind of stuff that tends to blot out political concerns, and The Four Feathers is certainly engaging enough as a rousing adventure story. The director, Shekhar Kapur, who last directed the visually ravishing Elizabeth (1998), gives the film a similarly impressive visual style. Working with cinematographer Robert Richardson (Snow Falling on Cedars), he brings to life all the blood and sand and thunder with a single-minded urge to make your head and heart pound. They bring a forceful naturalism to the story, as well, particularly in horrific scenes in an African prison and in the body-strewn aftermath of battle. Sometimes, this approach works, giving the film a sense of grit and texture that brings it to life. Other times, it seems like a lot of effort for not much payoff because the characters' emotional responses to the story's events never quite reach the level we would expect. The film seems to be weighted by a deadening sense of simply going through the motions.
The story concerns a young soldier in the British army, Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger, A Knight's Tale). Harry's father is a powerful army general, and he is engaged to marry the beautiful Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous). However, the night after Harry finds out that his regiment is being sent to the Sudan to fight Egyptian rebels who are making life difficult for the colonials, he resigns his post. This is viewed as a sign of cowardice, and he is subsequently disowned by his father, dumped by Ethne, and send a package of white feathers--which symbolize cowardice--by his best friends. (However, it is never made entirely clear exactly why Harry resigns. At one point, it seems political, when he asks someone what a land in the middle of nowhere has to do with England. At another point, it seems to be because he never wanted to be in the army in the first place, and was only doing it to please his father. But, at the same time, there is a clear suggestion that he simply doesn't want to risk dying.) The only one to stand by him is his best friend, Lt. Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley, American Beauty), an upright born soldier who loves Harry openly and secretly pines for Ethne.
In order to prove that he is not a coward, Harry leaves for the Sudan in secret, disguises himself as an Arab, and tracks his regiment. His goals and purposes are never made fully clear, which is one of the film's most fundamental problems. We understand that he wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his soldier-friends, but how he plans to do that is muddled. He is, of course, successful in his pursuits, mostly owing to the fact that he teams up with Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou, Amistad), a noble African slave who wanders the desert for no discernable purpose and becomes Harry's confidant, protector, and savior because, as he puts it, God put Harry in his way. Interestingly enough, the relationship between Harry and Abou Fatma becomes the most emotionally moving aspect of the story, mostly owing to the fact that Honsou's performance is the best in the film.
Where The Four Feathers tends to stumble the most is in the relationships. Both Ledger and Hudson are attractive and talented, but they generate almost no heat on screen. There is little time to establish their relationship, and, when Ethne leaves Harry, we don't feel the loss. Similarly, the relationship between Harry and Jack is undermined because the film focuses more on Jack's jealousy of Harry's relationship with Ethne, rather than on his devotion to his best friend. There are a few too many threatening close-ups of Jack glaring at the lovebirds from afar, so much so that we feel he is a danger. This initial feeling pervades the rest of the film, making it difficult to like Jack even when he does the right thing.
So, in the end, we are left with a visually beautiful film with great battle scenes and gorgeous production design that never quite moves us emotionally or deals with the conflicted era of colonialism that forms its backdrop. It reduces the inhabitants of the Sudan to either villainous rebels or noble savages who aid the colonial forces, a simple and disturbing dichotomy that reinforces age-old prejudices. Again, this is not to say that the filmmakers should have spent all their efforts critiquing colonialism at the expense of the story's effectiveness (some have suggested that, because Shekhar is Indian-born, he has a responsibility to do just that). However, it is something that should have been dealt with in some manner, rather than just ignored, which seems to suggest that The Four Feathers, unlike its protagonist, is a coward that fails to redeem itself in the end.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick