The Four Feathers

(Shekhar Kapur, USA, 2002)


According to film world legend, Richard Stanley (Hardware [1990]) made history when, after being sacked as the director of The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), he sneaked back onto the set and appeared before camera, disguised as one of many native extras.

Perhaps it was this tale, rather than the hoary old A.E.W. Mason novel of 1902, that inspired Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth [1998]) to take on the seventh adaptation for film or television of The Four Feathers.

For here we have disgraced British soldier, Harry (Heath Ledger), stealing into the Sudan to get close to his beloved former regiment – disguised as an Arab.

What could possibly have led such a young, handsome, virile man to such elaborate subterfuge? On the eve of his regiment’s posting to the Sudan, Harry decided to throw in the towel. It is not only his best mates who consider him a coward for doing so, but also his disgusted fiancée, Ethne (Kate Hudson).

Why did he do it? Passion for the saucy and rather un-British Ethne may have had something to with it, plus – we hope – a moment of fervent anti-war feeling. But no, the clunking contraption known to generations as the plot of The Four Feathers depends on one simple explanation: Harry really is a weak, base coward.

And, no matter what modern, anti-colonialist touches Kapur, with talented co-screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove [1997], Jude [1996]), may try to insinuate into its telling, this tale can only have one resolution: the joyous moment when Harry, at last a man and a patriot, plunges fatally sharp objects into anonymous Arabs on the sandy battlefield.

Politically, this film is a disgrace. Kapur valiantly tries to have it every way at once: he shows (in the movie’s best sequence) the nightmare of a crowded desert prison, and he reserves a burst of slow motion and tragic orchestral music for the obligatory War-is-Hell passage, but he cannot escape the inevitable uplift that conventionally accompanies scenes of triumphant slaughter.

Kapur has even less luck subverting the noble savage cliché. Despite a fine, imposing actor (Djimon Hounsou), Abou the luckless companion has to be a loner who would, in a pinch, rather be tortured trying to help his best British mate than stand up for his own oppressed people.

For those with nostalgic memories of the 1939 version starring Ralph Richardson, The Four Feathers is a property redolent with the spirit of the Korda brothers (Alexander and Zoltan): not only in its gung-ho militarism, but also in its trembling melodrama of two men competing for the affections of a woman waiting back home, and the plot device of blindness.

For Miramax, the company that produced this remake, the Korda ethos is but an ancient memory. What matters, surely, is this project’s handy proximity to the dire but wildly successful The English Patient (1996), all the way from the pretty hills that resemble naked bodies to the wistful, washy issues of national allegiance and personal honour.

But you know you are in trouble when faced with a movie so lifeless that it is compelled to include a scene in which proud Abou teaches gormless Harry to laugh – and it even reprises this excruciating moment in the desperate final frames.

© Adrian Martin May 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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