The Four Feathers Review
The time is the 1880s and British interests in North Africa are being threatened by a revolt led by the Mahdi, a religious figurehead with a large and fanatical following. The British government responds by sending several regiments to the Sudan to help put down the uprising. One of these regiments is that of Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young officer from a family of soldiers who donned the uniform because he was expected to, yet secretly hoped to serve out his commission and then live a quiet life with his fiancee Ethne (Kate Hudson). When the orders come, Harry panics and resigns his commission, to the shock and disgust of his father, who disowns him, and of his comrades, three of whom send him white feathers, the symbol of a coward. Harry's best friend Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) stays loyal but a fourth feather does arrive. It's from Ethne.
Months later, Harry is a pariah who bitterly regrets his decision. News arrives from Africa that the British campaign is faltering as it runs into fierce resistance from an enemy its leaders have underestimated. Seeing an opportunity to regain his honour, Harry journeys to his regiment's camp in the Sudan, gaining entry by impersonating an Arab labourer. There he discovers just how strong the support for the Mahdi is among the natives and sees that the British force is marching blindly and pig-headedly into a trap. With the help of a proud African tribesman (Djimon Hounsou), Harry sets out to save his friends and prove he's no coward.
Filming The Four Feathers in the 21st century was always going to be a thankless task. If ever there was a story that glorified traditional British values - the army, the Empire and the stiff upper lip - it was AEW Mason's 1902 novel of cowardice and redemption. It's been filmed several times before, most famously in 1939 and most recently in the seventies but, in today's climate, a tale that endorses Western imperialism and the duty to fight unquestioningly for your country is, to put it mildly, likely to draw some criticism. Which raises the question, do you shoot the story straight with its politics intact or do you make concessions towards modern sensibilities even though they clash with the thrust of the narrative? It could be argued that no one would object to making a Samurai movie that espouses the equally outdated Bushido code but then it could also be argued that this wouldn't offend anyone and no matter how much we complain that the British are portrayed too harshly in historical adventures like Braveheart and The Patriot, a film supporting British colonialism would certainly ruffle a few feathers.
You can't blame director Shekhar Kapur for having his doubts, though you might wonder what attracted an Indian born in the last years of the Raj to such a project. His last film, the excellent Elizabeth was enhanced by his brutally realistic treatment of its period (it opened with protestants being burned at the stake and closed with the bloody heads of Elizabeth's enemies). Taking the same approach to The Four Feathers proves less successful. This isn't a political movie, it's a boy's own adventure that takes its values for granted and depends on them to work. By inserting scenes showing the British cruelly whipping and hanging the natives and having Faversham ask why the British were fighting over a far-flung desert - a dubious anachronism - Kapur makes the audience question not only the ethics of the time but why anyone should care about Faversham's attempt to rescue the very people who are being portrayed as violent thugs.
Kapur's mixed feelings about the material leave The Four Feathers unfocused and rambling, drifting from episode to episode without any real narrative drive. It's also lacking an effective lead actor as Heath Ledger, who was fine in A Knight's Tale and The Patriot, is too lightweight to carry off Harry Faversham's moral anguish. Kate Hudson is also wrong for her character, making Ethne a little too nice to believe she'd turn her back on her fiance. More credible are Wes Bentley from American Beauty, who disappears into his role as Harry's best friend and Djimon Hounsou, who plays more or less the same noble, taciturn warrior he played in Amistad and Gladiator.
The cinematography is suitably handsome and the action scenes, which are surprisingly sparse for an adventure movie, are well staged though unconvincing in their details. It's difficult to believe certain characters are able to walk away unnoticed from the desert massacre, especially when one of them changed sides in full view of both armies. At least this scene looks at home in a historical epic, unlike the climactic fistfight, which is straight out of a modern day Hollywood action film and comes complete with the mother of all headbutts.