I’m no scholar of the film versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1901 novel, The Four Feathers — first filmed when it was a scant 14 years old and still being filmed at the ripe old age of 100. The 1915, 1921, 1955 and 1977 renderings have escaped my gaze. I will say that Shekhar Kapur’s version beats the pith helmet off the Merian C. Cooper-Ernest B. Shoedsack (of King Kong fame) 1929 version, compares favorably with the much-praised Zoltan Korda 1939 “definitive” version, and, in some ways, surpasses it.
That last assessment seems to be heretical — the Korda film has been trotted out by more than one critic as superior to the new one. This is beside the point — since most viewers probably haven’t seen the Korda film and aren’t likely to — but it’s also a bit short-sighted. Kapur’s film overtakes the earlier ones by refusing to be a rousing encomium to British imperialism. Instead, it’s both an adventure and a critique of imperialism and the macho mindset.
The story remains intact: On the eve of being shipped to the Sudan to fight the Mahdi, Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger, A Knight’s Tale) resigns his commission and is branded a coward. Three of his friends and his fiance, Ethne (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous), each send him a white feather. To prove himself, Harry travels to the Sudan alone to return feathers to his three comrades.
The approach to the tale is different, however. There’s little sense of military glory and no endorsement of imperialism. Kapur’s handling of the material is shrewd. Visually and in terms of plot the film adopts the classic epic approach of David Lean. But its heart and soul have far more in common with anti-war, anti-establishment films such as Richard Lester’s How I Won the War and, more pointedly, Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Eschewing those films’ stylized approach and satirical thrust is probably a plus at the box office, but it’s apt to make The Four Feathers be taken as just another jingoistic war movie (an even greater risk at the moment for a film in which the enemy are “Mohamedan Fanatics”). This is particularly unfortunate since careful consideration of the film shows this is not what Kapur intended — as seen when the impending war is announced and a British chaplain offers a perfectly horrifying prayer, villifying the enemy as sub-human heathens. This could — and probably will — be taken at face value in some quarters, but it’s far too overstated to be viewed in that light, especially in conjunction with Harry’s reservations about their “sacred” mission. He questions what any of this has to do with England and Her Majesty.
Further evidence of the film’s intent surfaces in the movie’s less-than-flattering portrayal of British officers, and the way British atrocities are portrayed side-by-side with those of the Mahdi. This is clearly not a valentine to the “greatness” of the British Empire, nor, by extension, to any similar “Western superiority” mentality. That said, Kapur doesn’t stint on the action, which is masterfully handled at every turn.
What makes the film rise to the top of the action-adventure crop is the great emotional resonance afforded the characters. The implicit reason for Harry resigning his commission is his hope that his best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley, American Beauty), might follow suit (the subtext between the two characters is unmistakable). For all its undeniable spectacle, The Four Feathers is a story of human interaction — that’s the secret of that rarest of films, a truly good epic. Kapur, his writers and his first-rate cast have kept the human side of the story in focus at all times.
With this role, Heath Ledger proves that the appeal he showed in A Knight’s Tale and the skill he demonstrated in Monster’s Ball can be combined in one performance — one that ought to propel him into full-fledged stardom. Character actor Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator) scores big in the key supporting role of Abou. The Four Feathers won’t give you quite the high that last winter’s old-fashioned adventure film The Count of Monte Cristo did, but it compensates by giving you something to chew on after the fact. That’s not something to be dismissed.