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THE Four Feathers

The Four Feathers
2002 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 131 min. / Street Date February 18, 2003 / $29.99
Starring Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Alek Wek, Kris Marshall, Rupert Penry-Jones, Tim Pigott-Smith
Cinematography Robert Richardson
Production Designer Allan Cameron
Film Editor Steven Rosenblum
Original Music James Horner
Written by Michael Schiffer, Hossein Amini from the novel by A.E.W. Mason
Produced by Laurie Borg, Paul Feldsher, Paul Feldsher, Julie Goldstein, Marty Katz, Allon Reich, Robert Jaffe, Stanley R. Jaffe
Directed by Shekhar Kapur

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Four Feathers is a displaced movie, made from a novel written in an age that took for granted the spirit of colonial Imperialism. In the featurettes on this disc, the makers proudly announce that this 2002 version went directly to the book - and then 're-envisioned' it for modern audiences. What they really mean is that they tailored their young heroes to appeal to the kids of their target market, as did Pearl Harbor. In this version of Victorian history, veddy-proper gentleman soldiers howl like modern-day jock wariors when told they're going into battle. At the big ball, they cut capers and play on the balcony railing like post-Richard Lester jokers, and get the giggles as if tickled by being all dressed up in those silly costumes.

Add some PC characters to give the film a racially diverse base, and fundamentally alter the theme of cowardice vs honor, and this new version is a pretty but pointless exercise in flashy direction and empty storytelling. The old Korda epic, with its stout-hearted Lieutenants facing off with ragged legions of 'Fuzzy Wuzzies', is by comparison a clear and honest expression of the values of its day.


Dashing Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) has become an officer to please his priggish career soldier father (Tim Piggot-Smith) but becomes engaged to the desirable Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson) without letting her know of his intention to serve only the minimum term of commission. Instead, Harry's unit is called up to fight for the Sudanese against the Mohammedan Mahdi, and he promptly resigns out of cowardice. Even though his best friend Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) attempts to stand up for him, Harry's comrades each present him with a feather of peace - representing a charge of cowardice. Ethne's reaction is to hurriedly call off her engagement. Disowned by his family, Harry seeks to atone by embarking on a crazy adventure to join his comrades at the battle front, disguised as a native.

The Four Feathers shows what takes precedence in modern movies. Narrative sense is out, fresh young faces are in. The historical recreations of sets and costumes are better than ever, but all characters must be 100% identifiable to modern undiscriminating audiences. And modern PC sensibilities must be imposed on all disturbing content. Finally, the shooting style must ignore storytelling, mood, or the evocation of a specific time and place, in favor of zippy cutting, show-off camera angles, meaningless camera tricks, and pointless slow-motion. And everything must look uniformly pretty, no matter what's happening on-screen. Almost all entertainment movies are now made as commercial offerings, period. An absorbing movie like The Dark Blue World, with its stunning recreations of disturbing, unfamiliar history, won't find an audience.

Shekar Kapur's film tries to be a good showcase for its young actors, but the trite situations and confusing motivations don't put them in a good light. Heath Ledger has great hair but makes a colorless Harry Faversham. Wes Bentley is intense as the brooding Jack Durrance. Along with the decorative Kate Hudson, literally the only woman in the film with dialogue,  1 all the characters are subverted by puzzling script decisions.

The main problem is that this version of The Four Feathers changes the reason Harry resigns his commission. In the original 1939 Korda version,  2 Harry simply doesn't see himself as a soldier. He honestly prefers to address his family's neglected responsibility to their estate, and his own responsibility to his bride Ethne, to running off to war. He later questions his motives, but he never considers himself a coward, and he takes direct action by going to Africa to prove it.

By contrast, Michael Schiffer's 2002 adaptation envisions Harry as a self-acknowledged coward. His trip to Africa is made from a position of weakness, and his trials there are a character-building trial of atonement and redemption. Nothing was ever wrong with the system of honor, only with Harry.

In both films, Harry Faversham is a man out of step with his times, but the difference between the interpretations is everything. 1939's Harry is a man of outstanding character who purposely undergoes voluntary mutilation and humbling hardship, just to show what a superior fellow he is. He singlehandedly rescues all of his old friends, and helps turn the tide of a major battle in the bargain. When Harry's gallant spy work is revealed, all four who damned him with white feathers are humbled. It's the perfect Victorian story of the good Englishman who goes outside the system to prove himself. Harry is apart but equal to the militaristic honor code of his day - as when he finally makes the blowhard old general back down from his pompous stories about glory in the Crimea.

In the 2002 film, Harry is just a confused fellow who suddenly becomes a top secret agent man in the Sudan, somehow passing as a native with just a beard and a dirty face. He rescues his three pals, but only with the continual aid of a real native sidekick, who, frankly, does all the work. Harry doesn't distinguish himself with a victory or really prove that he's better than his friends. Just going to Africa and clumsily mixing in is enough. He reclaims his chastened girlfriend back in England (an unconvincing event in both films), but really proves nothing.

The 1939 film is about ironies and personal retribution. Harry's long trek with the blind Jack is great because Harry maintains the ruse that he's a mute native, something that Jack doesn't discover until long after the African campaign is over. Harry attains something better than honor - he becomes a legend.

In the new film, Harry's incognito ruse is underplayed, and even the ritual of returning the four feathers is mostly dropped. The central relationship between Harry and Jack has a muted finish, skipping any dramatic confrontation, or any real resolution. Instead, Jack makes a fast friendship with a Man Friday-like native, Abou (Djimon Hounsou), a ridiculous noble savage character. Abou (a name patronizingly remindful of Abu of The Thief of Bagdad) speaks excellent English, and trades jokes with Harry as if they had gone to grade school together. Perhaps Abou appears in the original book? He really comes across as an effort to inject contemporary diversity into a story that shouldn't know the meaning of the word. The 2002 film ends with a forced image of Harry thinking about Abou riding the sand dunes. It's a poor man's nonsense rewrite of Gunga Din.

Politically, the new The Four Feathers is a mess. Wanting to have its cake and eat it too, this military movie uses printed text and frequent exposition to make sure we know that Imperialism is Bad, part of some ancient England that doesn't exist any more. Harry asks what a war in Africa has to do with him, just like a 1970s draft evader. Yet the role of the British army in Africa is never questioned - they're Christians fighting the Mahdi and trying to rescue Gordon. Their tactics go uncriticized, except for a stubborn officer's refusal to believe Abou when he tells him a British fort has fallen to the Mahdi. There's no outcome given to the fighting.  3 Curiously, when Harry makes a speech at the end, it's to honor comradeship, a concept that neatly replaces any evaluation of what actually happened, with militaristic sentiment. The only message is that War is eternal, and natives are heathen brutes who treat noble Europeans brutally. The only value to be found is in the personal connection between soldier pals. Let's all enlist.

The battles are dusty but mostly bloodless, and the fighting is a trendy montage of slow motion details, with constant, insulting expository lines - "They're retreating!" that relieve us of the responsibility of figuring anything out for ourselves. In the heat of battle, we concentrate almost exclusively on the emotional states of the officer heroes, who are of course the only combatants who count. This makes them seem more wimpy than they should be.

The fantasy revisionism comes to a head in a encounter that Jack's patrol has with a sniper. They corner him, and a long standoff occurs when the sniper refuses to put down his rifle, forcing the reluctant officer to shoot him. Our heroes then exit, pelted by stones from Sudanese children. The episode has much more to do with the LAPD in South Central Los Angeles than it does with 1884, when Jack's men would have indiscriminately fired into the crowd, and executed the sniper without the slightest hesitation. The colonial mentality didn't acknowledge the rights of heathen dissenters, and in places like India and Africa, the thinly-stretched military had no illusions about getting along with the natives. An inexperienced officer like Jack wouldn't be allowed to command a patrol until his superiors made sure any 'sensitivity' would not become an issue. Likewise, the defiant suicide gesture of the Sudanese sniper plays like the kind of grandstanding done for the modern media.

The Four Feathers has some richly shot action, a very pretty Kate Hudson to smile at the boys, and a lot of postcard scenery that makes the Sudan look like the Sahara. Characters pop back and forth between Africa and England, as if the Sudan were a few miles south of the Thames. For great colonial adventure, with varying degrees of historical accuracy and political viewpoint, Savant recommends the 1939 The Four Feathers, Zulu (1965), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Zulu Dawn (1979), all superior entertainments that won't insult your intelligence.

Paramount's DVD of The Four Feathers is a bright transfer of a very handsomely shot new film, with a sparkling picture and clear audio. The extras are a full gallery of featurettes of varying length that for legal reasons take the place of an organized documentary. Some are thorough, and others ramble, with the director and screenwriter presenting their views while behind-the-scenes video play. Museum curators help flesh out the most interesting piece, A (sic) Historical Perspective, but their accurate characterization of the Victorian period makes the movie seem just that much more 'reinterpreted'. Director Kapur provides a pleasant commentary that dutifully explains plot details and character relationships. There's a trailer on board as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Four Feathers rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making of docuA Journey from Within, seven featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 16, 2003


1. This liberated version tells us nothing whatsoever about Ethne, who appears to have no relatives or friends. When she goes to an elder for advice, it's the father of the man she's spurned!

2. I'm not holding that film up as a necessarily great or superior picture, but just for contrast.

3. This version seems to be taking place before Khartoum falls - perhaps the massacred troops are the ones pictured in the beginning of the 1965 Khartoum. In the 1939 The Four Feathers, Khartoum has already fallen. Gordon is dead, and the expedition is a clean-up reconquest of the Sudan.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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