Anyone who has seen movies dealing with Colonial Britain and the British Army has to be shaking their head and wondering how the heck these guys, in their bright red uniforms, pointy hats, and uptight demeanor, managed to conquer nearly a quarter of the globe at the height of their power. The British are not, as “Four Feathers” details, exactly the best warriors in the world. Their idea of warfare is total dedication to bureaucracy and a protocol-laden series of actions that, to an outsider, would seem unnecessarily obsessive and cumbersome. Let’s just say the idea of “thinking outside the box” was never covered by the Colonial British Army manual.
“Four Feathers” stars former “It” guy Heath Ledger (“The Patriot”) as young Harry Faversham, a commissioned officer in the British army circa 1880s. Harry has a bright future ahead of him, has a great friend in fellow officer Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), and is engaged to marry the lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson). But Harry’s world darkens when his regiment is ordered to the Sudan to battle a marauding warlord. Harry, we learn, never really wanted to be an officer, and his plan was to join for a few years and then quit, having satisfied his officer father. Harry isn’t a soldier at heart, and he finds the whole notion of killing to be undesirable.
Suffering from a case of cowardice, Harry resigns his commission and leaves the army. Unfortunately for Harry, he finds little support from Ethne, who promptly calls off the engagement. Besides that, Harry’s other 3 friends, all former officers (excluding Jack, who still has faith in Harry), send Harry 3 white feathers, signifying his cowardice; Ethne adds the fourth feather in a selfish attempt to distance herself from him. Distraught, Harry sets out to prove himself, and goes to Sudan where he shadows his former regiment, determined to aide them whenever he can, thus proving something to himself, and those who branded him a coward.
Actually, Harry doesn’t do much of anything. It’s really co-star Djimon Hounsou (“Gladiator”) as Nubian warrior Abou Fatma who does all the real work. Despite playing the same character he played in the Russell Crowe movie, “Four Feathers” is most lively when Hounsou appears onscreen. The film, due to Heath Ledger’s lack of energy, loses a lot of life when it follows Harry’s quest for redemption. The filmmakers themselves must have realized that Harry is not nearly as interesting as they first thought, hence the appearance and re-appearance of Abou, even when his motivations for constantly saving the hapless Brit seems somewhat unfeasible.
This isn’t to say Heath Ledger isn’t good in the role. He’s actually very mature and I bought his coward-on-the-road-to-redemption quest. The role was probably written as purposely low on energy and high on melodrama, and the understated results show. Co-star Wes Bentley (“American Beauty”) also does a fine job as Jack, and is in fact nearly unrecognizable despite missing the wild facial hair and dirt that Ledger’s Harry sported. Bentley is terrific as the passionate soldier who, despite his secret love for Ethne, continues to support Harry through thick and thin. His eventual wounding, which leaves him blind, was more heartbreaking than the trials and tribulations endured by Harry.
There were a number of critics that threw around charges that the film was essentially a White Imperialism propaganda piece when the movie was released. They must have not seen the movie, because “Four Feathers” is anything but a pro-Imperialist movie. While it does show the marauders as wanton savages, it doesn’t exactly portray the British as any better. The British soldiers, upon hearing news that they’ll be going to the Sudan to fight, cheers like spoiled little boys, safe in their assumption that they’re God’s chosen people. The British arrogance runs through the whole film, and for much of the movie the British were no more sympathetic than the marauders.
Aside from the personal story of Harry’s quest, viewers aren’t prompted to root for one side or another. There’s no attempt to put the film into any historical context that I could see, and the Mahdi character, the leader of the marauders, could have been any number of faceless warlords that appeared and disappeared in that part of the world’s history. The film is actually not as action-packed as you would expect. Besides a major battle halfway into the film, the movie plays out as mostly a drama, with quick spurts of violence. While there is a brutal sequence involving a Muslim prison in the film’s Third Act, the movie is mostly bloodless.
Director Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth”) directs “Four Feathers” with cinematographer Robert Richardson, and the duo seems to be having more fun capturing the panoramic scenery of the Sudan desert than they are shooting the British locations. Most of the British scenes are draped in darkness and shadows, while the Sudan sequence are in bright light and majestic pans. “Four Feathers” doesn’t really meet the qualifications of an epic, but it is a good drama with a nice battle sequence in the middle. All this, despite the fact that co-star Kate Hudson doesn’t seem to be able to control her accent, which keeps slipping into Irish territory every now and then.
Shekhar Kapur (director) / A.E.W. Mason (novel), Michael Schiffer, Hossein Amini (screenplay)
CAST: Heath Ledger …. Harry Faversham
Wes Bentley …. Lt. Jack Durrance
Kate Hudson …. Ethne Eustace
Djimon Hounsou …. Abou Fatma