The Four Feathers
review by Dan Lybarger, 20 September 2002
Filmed nearly half a dozen
times, A.E.W. Mason's The Four Feathers is both timeless and
dated. First published in 1902, the story was written in a time when
European colonialism seemed not only a good idea but a divine right.
Watching Alexander and Zoltan Korda's 1939 adaptation is an
occasionally uncomfortable experience. Seeing hordes of black men
being routed by the Brits seems eerily similar to watching the Ku
Klux Klan riding to the rescue in The Birth of a Nation.
Still, many of the ideological divides that led to the Victorian era
conflict depicted in the tale haven't gone away, nor have the
story's themes of cowardice and redemption. In the right hands, The Four Feathers could
have felt thoroughly modern despite the period costumes.
filmmaker Shekhar Kapur is an intriguing choice for the latest
version. Born in what would later become Pakistan during the waning
days of British occupation, Kapur, who has lived in both India and
the U.K, approaches the material in an understandably less
jingoistic manner. More importantly, his last movie Elizabeth made the scheming
behind the Virgin Queen's reign as gripping as a well-made
contemporary gangster flick. He's not able to repeat his previous
success with this one, though. Much of The
Four Feathers feels
staid, and concessions for today's viewers seem more than a little
least Kapur wisely recruited another talented Australian to play his
protagonist. Last time, it was Cate Blanchett. In The
Four Feathers, Heath
Ledger stars as Harry Feversham, a young British Army lieutenant
with a bright future. His military career is just starting, and his
engagement to Ethne (Kate Hudson, spouting a less-than-convincing
British drawl) has made him the envy of many in the junior officer
corps. With his whole life ahead of him, it's small wonder that
Harry gets cold feet when his unit is about to be deployed in the
about risking his life for a campaign of questionable necessity,
Harry resigns his commission. His peers feel more than a little
betrayed and deliver him an insult: a box of white feathers. The
plumes are a symbol of cowardice. Gradually regretting his decision,
Harry decides that merely returning to the Army isn't enough to
restore his honor. His acts from here on vary from brave to
suicidal. The tale at this point becomes a feast for the eyes
(thanks to Snow
Falling on Cedars
cinematographer Robert Richardson) and fitful nourishment for the
heart and head. While the Moroccan locales are gorgeous, Harry's
bearded, hairy disguise makes him more like a hippie who missed the
bus to Woodstock than an Arab. At least the 1939 version came up
with a semi-credible technique for enabling him to blend with the
populace (he pretended to be mute).
time around Harry has an African sidekick named Abou Fatma (Djimon
Hounsou from Amistad) who bails him out every time his desire to prove his valor starts to
get unhealthy. Hounsou imbues the role with considerable dignity,
but many times his sacrifices on Harry's behalf are rather
contrived. It's almost as if credited screenwriters Michael Schiffer
and Hossein Amini (The
Wings of the Dove) felt
obligated to create a "good" Sudanese character.
many ways, this adaptation follows in the path of the Kordas'
version, including the missteps. That version was also handsomely
photographed (Jack Cardiff who shot The
African Queen and The Red Shoes
was one of the cinematographers). Both movies also seemed to lose
momentum after Harry rescues his best friend Jack (Wes Bentley).
It's almost as if Harry's later exploits are an afterthought.
The romantic triangle subplot in both movies is flat. Waiting
for it to resolve is less exciting than watching C-SPAN with the
sound off. Ledger and Bentley have more chemistry with each other
than either does with Hudson. While she is certainly miscast, the
material gives her a rather shaky foundation. This is a shame
because much of the strength of Kapur's Elizabeth
and Bandit Queen was the
unusual strength and dynamic nature of the female leads.
won't have to worry about receiving any feathers for this one. While
he's often treated as something of a teen idol, he frequently
demonstrates an eagerness to dive into his characters' weaknesses
that more seasoned performers sometimes lack. This was certainly
evident in Monsters
Even in something as
slight as A Knight's
Tale, he manages to create enough foibles and sensitivities to make the
roles he plays seem more human.
the rest of the film featured the same courage and intelligence
demonstrated in Ledger's performance, sitting through The Four
Feathers might not have seemed as arduous as walking across the