The Four Feathers (2002)

The Four Feathers (2002): United States – directed by Shekhar Kapur

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains violence and mature themes

The novel The Four Feathers, by A.E.W. Mason, has been filmed many times.  This 2002 update has the advantage of a large budget, name actors, and a classic story, but it never takes fully utilizes its potential.  The story remains epic, dealing with matters of honor and glory, and the production looks epic, but the construction is often confused and disjointed.

The story begins toward the end of the 19th century.  Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) is in the army; one of those wealthy and privileged enough to serve.  He has a lovely fiancee, Ethne Eustace (a decidedly un-British Kate Hudson), and some good friends that include Jack Durrance (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley).  When he learns that his unit will be sent to war in North Africa, however, he falters.  He is not a warrior, and would rather engage in simpler pursuits.  His decision to resign his commission carries great weight.

He has betrayed his country and his friends.  He is a coward and is sent three white feathers from men in his unit (but not Jack).  Ethne, devastated, also sends him one.  The film then jumps several countries and many months to Africa, where Jack is the capable leader of a group of soldiers.  They are having trouble with the Mahdi, a group of Muslims who are revolting against British colonial rule.  Harry, meanwhile, is having trouble with his disgraced life.  He suddenly appears in Africa, one would assume after a difficult sea voyage, and he is eager to regain his honor.

He attempts this by tracking down those who sent him feathers.  This involves becoming caught up in the uprising, being taken in by a kindly Muslim warrior, Abou (Djimon Hounsou), and managing to track his unit down as they are ambushed by a horde of tricky Mahdi warriors.  Abou is one of the more mysterious and interesting characters.  His motivations are not well explained but his symbolism as a Christ-figure is obvious.
But Harry remains the protagonist, and his feats are remarkable in their own right; that the movie does not show his various travelings is a detriment.

Large chunks of the film seem to be missing.  Harry travels back and forth from England to Africa a few times, but no mention is made of the time or struggles he faced.  He appears in the desert, is rescued by a wandering soul, but no mention is made of how or why.  In a large-scale historical drama such as The Four Feathers it is too much to ask the audience to suspend their disbelief as large amounts of the hero’s travels are skipped.  The story, too, continues on too long, as a fourth act extends the proceedings by thirty unnecessary minutes.  Perhaps a tighter adaptation might have consolidated and shortened the story, granting it greater emotional impact and credence.

But The Four Feathers is not bad.  The production is well-mounted, with some gorgeous shots of the desert and various battles.  One particular scene involving a square of British soldiers being pummeled from all sides is marvelous.  The period is captured convincingly, except for Kate Hudson.  She does not look or act British, and it was quite some time before I accepted her character as credible.  The cinematography is alternately lush and sparse, depending on the story’s need.  The film moves fairly well, but for the beginning and the end.  Shorter and more concise would have been preferable.

On one level The Four Feathers is an engaging action/adventure story of redemption, of honor lost and regained, of love doubted and reconsidered.  On this level the film succeeds, especially if the viewer is not bothered by chronological problems.  On another level, however, The Four Feathers is an ode to British colonialism.  The road to redemption is powered by war and violence and the white man’s manifest destiny is not questioned.  Fortunately the production is lush, with few missteps, and the film as a whole is fairly enjoyable.  Check part of your brain at the door and you will probably not be disappointed.

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