Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers follows the earlier 2002 films The Count of Monte Cristo and Road to Perdition as the year’s third lavishly produced, action-oriented period-piece comic-book of a movie based on a novel (or graphic novel).
All three of these stories center on a hero whose sense of honor requires him to manifest great skill in killing sizable numbers of people (though this year’s Monte Cristo softens the original story by having the hero use mostly non-lethal force).
Monte Cristo is also the only one of the three that knows it’s essentially a comic-book movie, and has appropriately modest aspirations. Like Road to Perdition, The Four Feathers feels like a weighty epic, though neither movie weighs in at more than about two hours, and neither really knows what it’s about.
The most recent of more than half a dozen film adaptations of
His motives are complicated. Partly it’s that he simply doesn’t see the point of killing and dying for the sake of a global empire (at one point he wonders what a "godforsaken desert" in Africa "has to do with her Majesty the Queen"). Partly it’s that he’s just gotten engaged to the comely if unfortunately named Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous), an officer’s daughter who doesn’t understand her fiancé’s decision. And partly, of course, he’s simply afraid.
That last reason is the only one that counts for three of Harry’s four best friends, each of whom sends him a symbolic white feather as a contemptuous token of cowardice. The fourth title feather is added not by the fourth friend, Lt. Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley, American Beauty), but by Ethne herself.
When Harry grasps the full social ramifications of what he’s done, he decides that he can’t live with his decision, and heads off to the Sudan on his own, determined to do what he can to help his former regiment against the enemy and to redeem himself if possible in the eyes of each of his friends.
What’s wrong with this picture? Here’s a protagonist who questions the validity of going and killing people on the other side of the globe for the sake of an empire, but then decides it’s okay to go and kill those same people for the sake of his own self-respect and that of others. The Four Feathers celebrates Harry’s heroics, but makes no effort to relate this to its critical attitude toward the cause in which he fights, or even with Harry’s own previous misgivings. (As a side note, by today’s standards Harry would probably be considered an illegal combatant, since he doesn’t fight as a soldier or wear a uniform and in fact goes disguised as the enemy.)
How does Harry feel at the end of his experiences about the war in Africa? Is he more convinced than ever that the British have no business in the Sudan? Does he think it’s a worthy cause after all? The filmmakers don’t ask and don’t tell. Instead, we’re treated to yet another serving of the new Hollywood war-movie orthodoxy (cf. Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, K‑19: The Widowmaker) that men fight not for ideas or politics or flags or countries, but for their fellow soldiers.
Of course, that’s precisely what the enemy soldiers are fighting for too, so it’s a convenient way for Hollywood to have its cake and eat it too, celebrating personal heroism while also undercutting the very notion of a just war or a just cause. It praises what the soldiers do while tacitly condemning the men who send them into battle in the first place. Of course in some cases the men who send soldiers into battle deserve criticism; but to bring that point into focus would involve more genuine ambiguity than most studios are willing to ask audiences to deal with.
That Indian director Kapur (Elizabeth) would be critical of British colonialism isn’t hard to fathom. What’s less clear is why he would choose to make a movie that takes such an oddly old-fashioned and uncritical view of a hero who finds manhood and honor in learning to fight and kill non-Europeans on the colonial battlefield in order to win the respect of his peers and father and beloved.
The movie vacillates between its own politically correct
aspirations and the inherently
On the other hand, the only Arabs who emerge as individuals at all are contemptible, while the British characters are for the most part likable and sympathetic. There is one noble Muslim character — Abou Fatma, played by Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Amistad) — but he’s no longer an Arab, but a black African. (The character of Abou Fatma has been misreported not to have come from the book at all, apparently because he was omitted by the classic British 1939 film version.)
Abou Fatma not only rescues Harry from dying in the desert, but proceeds to become Harry’s guardian angel, risking life and limb to protect him, trying to help the British forces, even fighting and killing other Muslims. When Harry asks him why he’s doing all this for a Christian and an Englishman, Fatma’s only response is: "God put you in my way. I had no choice." I always thought that in these stories, when you save a man’s life, he had to follow you around and help you with whatever your cause was; but I guess it all depends on, I don’t know, who’s wearing more clothes.
Fatma, of course, is not only pious and spiritual, but almost supernatural, in the tradition of mystical black supporting characters who aid white leading characters (cf. Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost). Only one English character displays any religious sensibilities; his battlefield scripture quotations recall the Baptist sniper in Saving Private Ryan.
Viewers unfamiliar with the story may find themselves confused over key plot points (e.g., what Harry’s planning to do when he arrives in the Sudan, why he adopts Arab dress and appearance, and why he never reveals himself to his friends). There are answers to these questions in the book, but the movie doesn’t have time for them. Whether this is the fault of screenwriter Michael Schiffer (Crimson Tide) or unfriendly editing (perhaps imposed by length-conscious Miramax), I couldn’t say.
Ledger, Bentley, and Hudson all acquit themselves well enough, considering how threadbare their characters are. Bentley’s character is the only one of Harry’s friends who stands by him after his resignation — yet he puts the moves on Harry’s fiancée Ethne as soon as Harry is out of the way.
Nor does the movie make more sense out of Ethne’s conflicts than of Harry’s: First she accuses him of cowardice, but later remonstrates with herself for not standing by him. Is this because she realizes that he’s not a coward? Because she’s suddenly decided that cowardice doesn’t really matter? Because she just misses him? Once again, the filmmakers don’t ask and don’t tell. Ethne is hardly a character in the film at all (you’d never guess that in the book she’s a more prominent character than Harry).
In spite of all this, the film does manage to evoke how its nineteeth-century characters feel about concepts like honor and duty and cowardice. Even if the presentation is lacking in rigor or depth, The Four Feathers avoids the danger of projecting contemporary attitudes and mores back onto the past (cf. Titanic, The Count of Monte Cristo). The dialogue, too, is for once appropriate, and doesn’t assail the ear with its contemporaneity. The characters do seem reasonably at home in their historical setting, even if they don’t inhabit it in an especially interesting way.
And of course it looks wonderful. The battle scenes are well mounted, and the look of the film benefits from spectacular locations in the landscapes of Morocco and the manor homes of England. The Four Feathers is never less than watchable. On the other hand, it’s never much more.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.