The Four Feathers

Epic-aping redemption tale that seems to have been overly hard-done by.

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 17 Jul 2003 by Scott Morris
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Set in a time when the British Empire was still in full world-dominating swing, The Four Feathers has been watching Lawrence Of Arabia and such epics and decided it's about time to return a similar work to the big screen canvas. While it can't presume to match such classics, it's the first of it's kind we've seen since Gladiator and as such earns plaudits for feeling like a breath of fresh air, despite having been stuck in a holding pattern over the Atlantic for over a year.

The British Army was more of an institution in the 1890's than it is now, if that makes any sense. A certain culture had been force-fed into the populace that serving your country by going out and bleeding in some god-forsaken desert for some bint on a throne in London was the One True Way To Live. Britain's dreams of Empire was in no small part based on simple economics and control of resources, but it was backed up with a healthy degree of religious intolerance that was appalled by all of these heathens wandering about having the gall not to be Christians. What better way to show God's love for all by mercilessly slaughtering thousands? It's part of this jingoistic worldview that sent the British Army off to war in The Sudan.

The Royal Cumbrians and their core of fresh-faced officers are literally chomping at the bit for a bit of righteous unwashed heathen smiting, and who is this Allah fellow anyway? Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) in particular is a soldier's soldier, eager to serve his country and platoon as best he can with a stiff upper lip. The rest of the band of officers and gentlemen, Trench (Michael Sheen), Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Castleton (Kris Marshall) are similarly ready for a spot of tea and war. Only Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) seems less than deliriously overjoyed about the impending trip to the desert. Having just proposed to his sweetheart Ethne (Kate Hudson), he's a little worried about getting some unwanted cranial perforations in a war he has no real interest in while performing a duty he has no real interest in. Still, coming from a long line of Army bods means he simply must also be an Army bod, like it or no.

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Harry likes it no, though. The only thing he can do, it seems to him, is to resign his commission to ensure he stays with Ethne. This is interpreted (correctly, as it happens) as a sign of cowardice by Trench, Willoughby, Castleton and eventually Ethne, despite Jack's spirited defence of his best friend and love rival for the affections of Ethne. Disowned by his father, friends and fianc?, Harry grows more desperately depressed with each day after his friend's departure for The Sudan until he decides his only hope for redemption is to head off to try to help his friends, however he can.

And lo, he does, although to travel across the desert he has to disguise himself as an Arab. This isn't the most terrifically convincing disguise the world has ever seen but it somehow works, perhaps due to glare from the sun. Shot in the Moroccan deserts, once the story is moved from the dreich misery of England to the glorious sun of the desert the film pick up the epic feeling it needs to be successful in a way that comes fairly close to matching Gladiator, the only other example of the type that springs to mind from recent years. Harry's quest comes close to failure, collapsing in the heat but he's saved by a passing native, Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou). The two strike up one of those unlikely friendships that you can't see a film without witnessing these days, and Abou resolves to help Harry help his friends, reasoning that God has put him in his way. Abou's probably the most intriguing character in the work, by turn spiritual, imposing and dangerous, and Hounsou puts in the films best performance, to my mind.

The British Army needs help, although being British they're far too proud to ask for it and far too supercilious too know they need it. There's a certain charming stupidity in marching through a foreign land taking over left right and centre and getting to work bashing Christianity into the filthy raghead natives and expecting to be hailed as saviours by the populace, who presumably are supposed to be happy to be told they are filthy unwashed scabby towelhead heathens by some upper class twit with a pencil thin moustache and a braying laugh. Not expecting resistance proves to be an undoing in the early stages of their campaign against the Mahdist forces. Harry desperately tries to warn the marching company his friends are part of that the fort they are marching to has in fact been overrun by the enemy, but to no avail.

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The battle scene between the British square of troops and an onslaught of Mahdists is a high-water mark in the film, beautifully shot albeit reminiscent of Zulu, by dint of prevailing military tactics. The rout of the British shows how overconfidence can easily be the downfall of any army, especially one as tactically naive as this British force. It leaves Castleton dead, Jack blinded and Trench captured. After a brief and unnecessary bounce around with a non-linear structure (my pet hate overplayed cinematic trick) Harry helps Jack back to the scattered and fleeing remnants of the British Army and then resolves to try and rescue Trench from prison.

In a brave but daft move, he allows himself to be captured, hoping to bribe the guards to let him escape. Although he finds Trench, plans so simple gang aft agley. Stuck in the fearsome Omdurman prison among some of the most claustrophobic and oppressive scenes in movies this year, Harry and Trench fight for survival amongst appalling conditions. Will they escape? Well, readers of the 1902 novel or watchers of Zoltan Korda's 1939 film adaptation (amongst others) will certainly know, but the rest of us will have to watch it to find out. As to how this version compares to the previous two; I've no idea, I've no experience of them. What I can say is that I rather enjoyed this, old boy.

There's a fair amount to like here, and not too much to get worked up over as far as I can see. The first half hour is perhaps too pedestrian, plodding along while throwing out the necessary exposition and Harry's fall from grace. It's vital though, as with out his fall there would be no rise and the remainder of the film wouldn't be half as interesting. There's no singular outstanding acting performance from anyone (Hounsou aside), but no-one's standing out as being particularly awful either. Heath Ledger puts in a surprisingly decent performance for one I'd resigned to the 'pretty but pretty useless' category along with a hundred other Keanu-alikes, Wes Bentley is suitably stoic throughout. Kudos to My Family star Kris Marshall as Castleton, showing he's more than just a goofy face with some of the better meaningful glances in a film stuffed full of ocular acting.

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I'd have liked to have seen a little more emphasis placed on the actual feelings of the natives towards the invading British armies, especially in light of recent events in Iraq, but unfortunately this is eschewed in favour of focusing on Harry's tale of redemption and duty towards his friends, which at the end of the day is a far more compelling reason to fight and face your fears compared with any abstract notion of Queen and country. I'm rather fond of this movie, although critics and moviegoers alike would disagree, having been a disastrous bomb in the States taking $7 million from a reported budget of $80 million. Eeek.

I think this has suffered critically as it's seen as a cut-rate Lawrence Of Arabia knock-off full of pseudo teen heartthrobs. It's one point of view, and if you stack it next to undeniably classic epics like said film then yes, it's bap. Taken on it's own merit, it's actually fairly enjoyable. Everything looks the part, the cinematography is powerful, the locations awe-inspiring, the battles handled well, the acting at absolute worst decent, the story barely believable but hey, it's a film. I like it, if for no other reason than allowing me a good old rant against the monarchy and organised religion, my two favourite hobby horses (apologies for the sidetracking though, as neither are central to the film). It's a thoroughly decent cinematic experience, although with seemingly every film for the remainder of the year being released this weekend it's likely to get lost in the mix a little. If you're hankering for something a little different (that isn't angry green monster based) you could do much worse than this old chap.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Shekhar Kapur
Cast list:
Heath Ledger (Harry Faversham)
Wes Bentley (Jack Durrance)
Djimon Hounsou (Abou Fatma)
Michael Sheen (Trench)
Kate Hudson (Ethne)
Kris Marshall (Castleton)
Rupert Penry-Jones (Willoughby)