The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers

USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes.

Cast: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Lucy Gordon, Nick Holder, Alex Jennings, Kris Marshall, Rupert Penry-Jones, Tim Pigott-Smith
Writers: Michael Schiffer & Hossein Amini, from the novel by A.E.W. Mason
Music: James Horner
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson
Producers: Paul Feldsher, Stanley R. Jaffe, Robert D. Jaffe, Marty Katz
Director: Shekhar Kapur


Grade: D Review by Dominic Varle

A   few years ago, in kinder, gentler times, producer Stanley Jaffe secured Shekhar Kapur to direct the sixth remake of The Four Feathers. Kapur, director of the marvelously dark Elizabeth, was going to remake the kind of fluff I'd watched as a boy on Saturday afternoons at my grandmother's knee? I was intrigued. The last version was made for TV in 1977 (starring Beau Bridges), so by Hollywood standards it was ripe for a makeover. It should have been a no-brainer--an old-fashioned tale of loyalty, honor, betrayal and redemption, with more than a dash of derring-do, set against a backdrop of 19th century British colonial expansion, and cast with a clutch of thrusting young bucks. It had the ingredients of a hit.

Too many cooks can spoil the broth, however. Kapur, born into an era of post-colonial strife, as India and Pakistan sought autonomy from British rule, was determined to put an overtly political spin on the tale, something he considered long overdue. "If you look at the state of the world today," he has said, "you can trace it back to one cause: colonization." The universal predilection for recycling stories, ideas and characters in sequels and remakes surely means a fresh perspective, challenging our comfort with the overly familiar, is welcome. Jaffe, however, quit during production, apparently unhappy at Kapur's desire to re-tell the tale with a slant that questioned the colonial ethos of A.E.W. Mason's 1901 novel and subsequent film adaptations. Yet Kapur seems equally unhappy with the final result. The very week the film opened nationwide, Kapur was quoted in Entertainment Weekly as saying, "I hate this film. Every cut, every aspect of storytelling." Intriguing comment, to say the least.

In the empire-building days of Britain, convention had it that the first-born son of the landed gentry would inherit, the second would serve in the military,Heath Ledger in The Four Feathers the third the law, and the fourth (the so-called "Idiot Son") the church. Thus, with no say in the matter, Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) finds himself serving in an army regiment commanded by his father. Clearly not a natural soldier, his predicament is offset by the camaraderie of his fellow officers and an engagement to Ephne Eustace (Kate Hudson). However, when the regiment is called upon to quell an uprising in the Sudan, Harry resigns his commission, leaving the regiment in the dead of night. Learning of this the next morning, Harry's closest friends brand him a coward, symbolically sending him three white feathers. A fourth, from Ephne, follows soon thereafter. Disowned to boot by his father, the ostracized Harry broods in his garret while his comrades set sail for action in the desert. Eventually he resolves to atone for his behavior by venturing to the Sudan to watch over his regiment, disguised as a native.

Long before this point, it dawned upon me that maybe my nine dollars had bought me a pig in a poke, as I was still waiting for a trace of the scathing indictment of British colonialism. After all, Hudson has said of this movie, "It's so rare that you get an opportunity to sit in a movie theater...and God forbid you have to come out thinking." Now, either Kate Hudson is a dim as a 2-watt bulb, or something happened between the original R-rated version that inspired her comment, and the version on which I frittered away two hours of my life. Without ruling out the former possibility, the latter appears worth a ten-spot at Off Track Betting, as there was nothing in the version I saw that provoked any thought beyond, "Will this ever end?" The three leads--Australian Ledger, Americans Hudson and Wes Bentley--are rarely scintillating, and were working with a dreadful script. Generally mustering passable English accents, the trio's greater problem was their Eliza Doolittle-like struggle with enunciation, which appeared to prevent them from actually acting.

It's all pretty enough, but it plods. Seemingly, endless codas show us the return of each white feather to the donors, as Harry redeems himself--none of which would have been possible without the help of A Noble Savage (Djimon Hounsou). Befriending Harry with a reproach--"You English walk too proudly on the earth"--Hounsou is arguably the real hero of the movie. But is the addition of a Man Friday-like character the sum total of Kapur's efforts to redress the indisputable imbalance in movie representations of the colonially subjugated?

Surely not. The editing throughout the movie suggests that a hand other than Kapur's was at work in the post-production, eliminating Kapur's politicization. Without a meatier subtext, all we are left with is the bones of the story, the cheekbones of the actors, and the finery of the costumes. In effect, The Four Feathers is a straightforward period romp. Even on that level, there are hardly enough synonyms for "lame" in the dictionary to usefully comment further. No wonder Kapur is unhappy.

Review © October 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2002 Miramax Film Corp. and Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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