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The Four Feathers   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Writers: Michael Schiffer, Hossein Amini (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason)
Cast: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen.

Review by Rob Vaux
Take up the White Man's burden,
Send forth the best ye breed --
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need.
--Rudyard Kipling
The Four Feathers is an artifact from a century ago, a novel of imperialist Britain that -- at first glance -- seems as far away from the modern world as ancient Egypt. It speaks of courage and cowardice, of red-faced soldiers fighting in distant lands for the gals they loved. It evokes noble sentiments -- honor, duty, fighting for a cause larger than yourself -- but does so under the sour ideology that England knows what's best for the world. It also spawned several solid films (including the high water 1939 version) most of which came and went a lifetime ago, while the Union Jack still reigned supreme.

Yet now, with soldiers from another powerful country on the ground in a similar locale, the time seems right for an update. Our perception of western values has changed, even as we aggressively defend them. We speak of equality and diversity even while suspiciously eyeing those different than us. In light of the new world we live in, why not apply the relic of an older one to our circumstances? The Four Feathers fits the mold perfectly, and director Shekhar Kapur possesses the right mixture of reverence and disdain for England's place in the world to pull it off. So why, then, does the resulting update feel so unformed?

The feathers of the title are a mark of cowardice, sent to soldiers who shirk their duties. Their target? Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), the son of a general who serves with a vaunted military regiment. When Sudanese rebels overwhelm a British garrison in the desert, Harry's unit is sent off to war... but he has second thoughts. He's freshly engaged to Lovely Young Thing Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson) for starters. Furthermore his entire military career reflects his father's wishes far more than his. And maybe, just maybe, the hints of fear linger in the corners of his mind; he doesn't think he's ready to die. The week before his company ships, he resigns his commission, prompting a trio of hand-delivered feathers, courtesy of his outraged former comrades. Appalled by his cowardice, Ethne rejects him and adds a feather of her own to join the other three.

Kapur certainly loves his chosen medium, and his admiration for British culture shines through in the film's early scenes. The Four Feathers is brilliantly photographed, and Kupar richly details the soldiers' London-based lives, from fancy-dress balls to rugby matches between units. The visuals don't let up once the soldiers arrive in the Sudan, readily shifting from England's lush green to the dusty brown of the desert. Here we find Harry's stalwart friend Jack (Wes Bentley), the one man who refused to condemn him, as he slowly becomes immersed in a very dicey campaign. The Sudanese are better-organized than anticipated, and the British in their arrogance refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of the threat. Jack, however, has a guardian angel -- a mysterious Arab, lingering on the edge of the British camp, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his old pal Harry. Could the shame of the four feathers have prompted the man to travel to the Sudan in disguise, hoping to somehow redeem himself?

The Arab is indeed Harry, and with his appearance in swarthy features, The Four Feathers begins to lose its way. The justification for his behavior is poorly developed and we never quite understand why he goes to such elaborate lengths to demonstrate his courage when easier means would suffice. Certainly, it provides the opportunity to show the British in a harsher light -- the locals have a different view of the White Man's Burden than the redcoats -- as well as giving Harry a nice Sudanese sidekick (Djimon Hounsou) to share in the heroics. But as a central plot point, it never attains the necessary punch, leaving a gaping plot hole in the proceedings. And as the luster of Queen and Country fades, Kapur can't find anything more compelling to replace it with. We see individual Englishmen as brave and heroic, but their cause as hubristic and cruel. We see the natives chaffing terribly under European yoke, yet their cause is championed by fanatics and thugs. Kapur can't decide which side of the conflict he falls, and his efforts to play both against the middle result in a serious identity crisis. A few feeble gestures towards the brotherhood of soldiers fails to bring The Four Feathers the sense of purpose it so desperately needs.

Thankfully, it provides some fine technical filmmaking to help compensate. The cinematography never wavers, ensuring that we always have something interesting to look at. The film's centerpiece -- a battle between Jack's unit and some very crafty Sudanese -- is breathtaking, and Kapur pulls some thrilling moments out of Harry's half-mad quest for redemption. Ledger is well-suited for the role, and both Bentley and Hounsou provide good company for his swash and buckles. Had The Four Feathers settled for pulpy colonial adventure, it might have done well for itself. As it is, however, it clearly longs for a higher purpose... a purpose that it proves unable to articulate. Lessons from the past hold the key to our future, and the blunders and triumphs of imperialist Europe continue to influence our lives. The Four Feathers echoes the spirit of that bygone age, and might have used it to drawn a powerful analogy for the 21st century. But it needs more than pretty pictures and good intentions. Strong filmmaking requires a clear sense of purpose, and in that oh-so-important category, The Four Feathers comes up short.

Review published 09.27.2002.

* * *

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