Film Reviews

THE FOUR FEATHERS

By • Sep 20th, 2002 •

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A Paramount Pictures and Miramax Films Release.
Rated PG-13 / Running time: 130 minutes

A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 adventure novel of cowardice and redemption during the 1880s war between Britain and the Sudanese, returns to the silver screen in its sixth incarnation. And of the previous five—though it’s now considered more in the order of a dated war horse of a morality fable—it’s the 1939 Zoltan Korda classic that’s been firmly, lovingly entrenched in the memory of most movie mavens. Mine included. Which led to a problem—and as a critic, I approached this assignment with some trepidation.

For one, I’m a pushover for the old English adventure films of the 1930s and early ‘40s: Gunga Din, Beau Geste, and most especially, Korda’s hearty, heartfelt, heroic epic—which I adored (& still do) despite its soap operatic melodrama. In fact, they were all of a piece, filled with such laudable truisms as honor, courage and bravery—with some romance thrown in for good measure. And they were memorable.

For another, the ’39 version of Feathers was the only one I’d seen till now, and had left a lasting, positive impression I hoped wouldn’t cloud my view of this latest remake. So before I continue, know you’re dealing with my ghosts—and wisps of memories from movies past.

Please know too I tried. Hard. But the bottom line: Kapur tries too hard to impress. Too much Gung Ho when I’d have preferred more Gunga Din. Vivid scenes of battle and horrors of prison should appeal to lovers of that genre. But the essence of the film isn’t war. It’s of one man’s personal battle to overcome fear itself, compounded by his utter loathing of his family heritage: of ennobling and glorifying battle—at any cost.

With the film’s focus on men at arms, the personal story gets short-changed. Every-thing’s spelled out interminably—such as the significance of bravery—as if the audience is stupid and can’t get it. Too much emphasis is given the overwhelmingly beautiful camera work (shot in Morocco)—of scenery and action—but it smothers this sensitive tale of honor and friendship. I was underwhelmed. Still, to give Kapur his due, his update does raise important questions worth mulling over: is NOT going to war an act of cowardice—OR of courage?

Background: 1894, during the Victorian era of staunch colonialism—and their glory days when the sun never set on the British Empire. After a group of Sudanese rebels attacks the Crown’s fort in Khartoum, it’s a call to war to defend their North African territory.

The Plot:, Harry Feversham (Ledger) a young officer, resigns his commission on the eve of his regiment shipping out.

In this battle against heathens in the Sudanese wasteland, he wonders “what a godforsaken desert has to do with the queen?” Still, Harry’s the son of a general (and long line of legendary military heroes) where resigning is the unthinkable. He’s a moral leper, disowned by his father and held in disgrace by everyone. Before they leave for the front, his three close friends, Jack, Trench and Willoughby, each give him a white feather—signifying cowardice. The fourth is given him by his fiancée (Hudson’s Ethne), along with her engagement ring. But Harry has to face up to his fears, if only to prove to himself he’s no coward. So he sneaks off to the Sudan, spends the rest of the film trying to redeem himself by acts of courage and earn the right to return the feathers.

Cut to the desert. By this time, with shaggy hair, ragged clothes and long scruffy beard, Harry is barely recognizable. He’s found half-dead in the desert and saved by the almost mystical Abou Fatma—more like a guardian angel—who helps him infiltrate the enemy camp to save his imprisoned former comrades.

The rest—well, you know the drill: shades of John Wayne and Geronimo— with cowboys and indians replaced by African warriors vs. the Redcoats. Shots of the lolling dunes are breathtaking—as is one set piece of British resistance, called “foursquare.” Here, the Brits form the outer edges of a large square, able to confront the enemy in all directions. More than anything else in the film, this overhead view is awesome!

As to the actors, Ledger’s bland, uninspired performance practically disappears under the woodwork—or in this case, the sand dunes. Best-in-Show accolades go hands-down to Wes Bentley (American Beauty), as Harry’s close friend Jack (secretly in love with Ethne) and Djimon Hounsou (Amistad; The Gladiator) whose character, Abou Fatma, till now, appeared only in the novel— not in any of the other screen versions. Their dynamic screen presence is formidable and outshine Ledger’s—or for that matter, Hudson’s, who is little more than a beautiful prop in a beautiful period costume. There’s little charisma.

To be fair, if “war” is your thing, try it. You’ll get your fill. But also rent the ’39 video.


Trivia: In an interesting aside, during a Q&A, the director said there were many memorable scenes in the ’39 film he would have wanted to steal: i.e. Ralph Richardson as Jack, blinded by the desert sun, wandering sightless for help amidst dead soldiers and crying aloud “Hasn’t anyone ever seen a blind man?” Or the one with C. Aubrey Smith as a retired old general, retelling at a formal dinner for the umpteenth time how he single-handedly won the Battle of Balaclava. It was an ongoing comical turn throughout, with Smith using nuts from a bowl to depict the warring parties, and with himself as the pineapple on his trusty steed leading his charges to victory.

Kapur said “they were beautiful but they weren’t in the book. They were creations of the original filmmakers” and though he would have loved to put them in, didn’t want to get involved in legal issues. More’s the pity. Though it’s understandable for reasons given, they were missed—as would be the absence of, for example, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride” from a potential remake of All About Eve.


Credits:
Directed by Shekhar Kapur.
Screenplay by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason;
Dir. of Photography-Robert Richardson;
Production Designer-Allan Cameron;
Editor-Steven Rosenblum;
Costume Designer-Ruth Myers;
Music composed and conducted by James Horner.

Cast:
Heath Ledger (Harry Feversham),
Wes Bentley (Lt. Jack Durrance),
Kate Hudson (Ethne Eustace),
Djimon Hounsou (Abou Fatma),
Michael Sheen (Trench),
Rupert Penry-Jones (Willoughby).

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