The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The last time a bunch of upper-class yahoos in red uniforms went off to be massacred on some foreign field was in The Charge Of The Light Brigade. The situation is similar here. Scenes at parties, scenes in the barracks, male bonding, girl flirtage, jolly good fun, followed by complete chaos in the line of battle, with fresh faced officers behaving badly to dark skinned natives, while keeping their top lips starched.

You would have thought that such people, with their unintelligent loyalties and dysfunctional emotions, should be left to fade on the mess room walls with those framed photographs of gun carriages and tight-buttocked generals astride broad-backed horses in sweaty countries. Alas not. Here we have an Indian director (Shekar Kapur), the Moroccan desert and a cast of Australian/American actors playing Victorian English gentlemen - and a lady. Yes, Kate Hudson is here, polishing her vowels.

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The original novel by A E W Mason was every private schoolboy's romantic adventure story, after Rider Haggard, in the Forties. When watching the film, you could hardly believe it, because the love interest between Harry (Heath Ledger) and Ethne (Hudson) becomes disinterest, once he resigns his commission in the Royal Cumbrians to marry her and she turns away. Why he leaves on the brink of the regiment going out to the Sudan to fight a dervish fanatic is never entirely explained. His mates send him white feathers, the sign of cowardice, and his brain goes into shock. There isn't much there in the first place, but afterwards it's mulch.

In order to regain his self-respect, if that is what he is doing, he follows the regiment - how? disguised as a porpoise? - and wanders around the enemy camp trying not to look like a spy. He grows a beard and lets his hair go heavy metal. He is saved, at one point, by Abou (Djimon Hounsou), a big African in loincloth and painted face, who considers that since God has put this idiotic white man in his path, he has no choice but to protect him. He speaks excellent English, too, which is both lucky and surprising.

Meanwhile, back at the regiment, his friends are making a dog's breakfast of being a colonial power. They are heavy-handed with the locals, shoot people on sight and fall into traps because they are too arrogant to listen to advice. You don't really understand what they are doing. Neither do they. So that when the followers of the much cleverer fanatic surround them in the big battle, they attempt a rearguard action and are cut down. Harry, dressed as an Arab, comes rushing along with the hordes to save his old pals. The book was never as stupid as this. Maybe it was. At 11, critical faculties are blunt.

Kapur is the man who turned Elizabeth into a gripping thriller, revolutionising costume drama overnight. The Four Feathers is not history, it's Boy's Own Adventure, with unrequited love and frightfully exciting stuff in Arabia - or is it Africa? The desert sequences are effective, with the sunlight lancing through dust clouds, although there is one scene that makes little sense. A single line of unarmed Arabs ride on camels in slow motion towards the redcoats. Systematically, they are shot and yet keep coming and are shot again and still keep coming, until all are dead. What, in the name of Allah, is that all about?

The English bits tend to drag dreadfully and you become aware how hard these young actors are trying to do the accent, while emulating an imaginary culture of duty and honour. The love triangle between Harry, Ethne and Jack (Wes Bentley) is a constipated mess of doing the right thing, or the wrong thing, or nothing at all. Sex is definitely off the menu. In the end, the only person in the entire movie you feel in tune with is the least believable - Abou, the noble savage. He has one line that stays in the mind: "You English walk too proud on this earth." Of course, he's talking to an Aussie at the time, who could only agree.

Reviewed on: 17 Jul 2003
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The Four Feathers packshot
Tale of redcoats, incompetence, cowardice and unrequited love in Victorian England and the Sudan.
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Director: Shekar Kapur

Writer: Michael Schiffer, Hossein Amini, based on the novel by A E W Mason

Starring: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Tim Pigott-Smith

Year: 2002

Runtime: 131 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/UK


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