Film Reviews: Thursday, September 19, 2002
Onward Christian Soldiers

Shekhar Kapur blows many chances in his remake of The Four Feathers.

By Kristian Lin

Like A.E.W. Mason’s novel and the other six film adaptations of it, the most recent version of The Four Feathers is about a military and cultural superpower occupying a foreign land and fighting a group of fanatical Arab Muslim warriors led by a self-proclaimed messiah. The film was in production in early 2000, well before the events of last September, but its story would seem to make it supremely timely. Strangely enough, it isn’t.

The film takes place in 1875, as the British empire establishes its colonial reach in the Sudan and encounters resistance among followers of the Mahdi. Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) is an officer in the British army, beloved by his fellow soldiers and engaged to a beautiful socialite, Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson). When his regiment receives orders to ship out, he suddenly resigns his commission — more on that in a second. His army friends send him white feathers as a sign of his cowardice, though his best friend Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) refuses to join in. Unable to live with the shame, Harry goes solo to northern Africa, disguises himself as an Arab, and helps the British cause on his own initiative until he feels himself worthy of returning the feathers to his friends.

The movie makes hash out of the reasons for Harry’s critical decision, though to be fair, they aren’t that clear in the famous 1939 film version that closely inspires the current one. Harry quits the army because a) he doesn’t want to be separated from Ethne, b) he doesn’t understand why the British are fighting in Africa, and c) the possibility of being killed in a war makes him realize that he only joined the military in the first place because he was pressured into it by his father, a career officer. However, it’s impossible to tell in what proportion these reasons motivate him to leave and how he reconciles them with his subsequent decision to go to Africa on his own. Ethne’s actions with regard to Harry are hard to decipher as well — she first takes his side, then joins his friends in denouncing him as a coward, then has a change of heart too late to keep him from going to Africa. It feels as though some substantial scenes were cut out of the early going that might have clarified all these character issues. This is pretty damaging, because it greatly lessens the weight of the rest of the story and also throws the film’s structure out of whack by leaving so much unresolved. The movie is overlong at slightly over two hours, but had it run two and a half or three, it might have felt more complete.

This is the first film directed by Shekhar Kapur since the Oscar-nominated Elizabeth, which gained its ferocity from both its structural precision and its sadistic glee in depicting the brutal violence that went into the establishment of Britain’s empire. The Four Feathers has much less of those qualities and as a result is much less effective. It was definitely cut to gain a PG-13 rating, and even though Kapur still manages to get away with quite a bit of violence, the absence of blood gives short shrift to the scale of death and dismemberment inflicted during the British action in Sudan. (At the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, a badly outnumbered British and Egyptian force managed by dint of superior firepower to inflict 31,000 casualties on Sudanese warriors while suffering fewer than 400 themselves.)

Mason’s novel and Zoltan Korda’s 1939 film version pretty much swallow the whole imperialist line that the British had a duty to God and country to slaughter the Africans. It’s disappointing and more than a little surprising that Kapur doesn’t critique this mindset, even though he’s in a prime position to do so, especially coming from a country (India) where the British colonial influence is still deeply felt. He does suggest that the Brits were racist, arrogant, ignorant, and in over their heads, but even though Harry floats the question of why the English are fighting in Sudan, the movie never gets around to seriously posing it. Much as in last year’s Black Hawk Down, the enemy is a faceless black mob whose grievances we never really get to know.

That’s particularly regrettable, since our time calls for greater understanding of Islam and the Arab world. It’s true that Kapur and his company couldn’t have known about world events that would happen after they started production, but the movie’s concentration on its white English characters limits its scope rather sadly. The film ends with an affirmation of the new ethos of Hollywood’s war films, as one of the British officers states that political considerations are forgotten in the heat of battle: “We fight for the man on our right, and we fight for the man on our left.” The problem with this is, what about the man you’re shooting at, who, by logical extension, is shooting at you? Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers didn’t forget that man; his Vietnam War drama was able to valorize the same ideal of fighting for one’s comrades while simultaneously taking the enemy’s viewpoint into account and raising questions about America’s objectives and methods in Vietnam. Had Kapur been able to do the same thing (and he probably could have with a few small adjustments), his film would have been a powerful commentary on how a superpower should conduct itself when dealing with a foreign culture. Instead, The Four Feathers is an irrelevant, modestly scaled costume epic that fails to transcend its source’s outdated notions.

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie. Indeed, Kapur’s too talented a filmmaker to come away from the material empty-handed. His film may be deficient from a formal standpoint, but he often puts something interesting on the screen for us to look at, whether it’s an extended battle where the British cavalry gets disastrously faked out by Arab tactics or an overhead shot of an inhumanly crowded prison. As in Elizabeth, the mayhem and human suffering both repel him and turn him on. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has collaborated with both Martin Scorsese (Casino, Bringing Out the Dead) and Oliver Stone (Platoon, Natural Born Killers), has the right lurid palette for this assignment. He does some remarkable work keeping up with the film’s shifts of ambience — the chilly colors of the outdoor rugby match that opens the film give way to the opulent candlelit warmth of a military ball and then to a properly sun-blasted look for the African scenes.

Continuing with his practice of casting non-British actors in key roles, Kapur has an Australian and two Americans in the leads. The young cast shows an astonishing amount of maturity despite the muddy character development. Ledger has always looked older than his years, and even though he can’t make sense of his character’s transformation, he looks convincingly like a bon vivant who’s scared on the inside at the beginning, and he’s equally convincing as a hero toward the end. Hudson has even less of a character to play than Ledger, and though she works hard, she’s defeated by her task. (She’s perhaps a bit too bubbly for the role, which could have used someone steelier.) The big surprise, however, is Bentley and how easily he slides into the role of a swaggering English officer — his sensitive teenager from American Beauty is nowhere to be found.

However, The Four Feathers is still more notable for what it doesn’t achieve than for what it does. Shekhar Kapur misses a plethora of opportunities here — to bring a contemporary sensibility to an old adventure yarn, to tell a story that might resonate at a time when the West and the Arab world are once again forced to come to terms with each other, and to expand on his own awestruck but appalled vision of imperial England’s accomplishments and excesses. The fact that he is capable of doing all these things only makes this film more discouraging.

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