All sweeping desert vistas and melodramatic 19th Century British imperial clichés (updated with politically correct tisk-tisking, of course), Shekhar Kapur's "The Four Feathers" is a hollow-hearted epic for the sake of an epic.
The tedious seventh film adaptation of A.E.W. Manson's turn-of-the-Century flag-waving war novel about the heroic redemption of craven English army officer, the film stars Heath Ledger ("A Knight's Tale," "Monster's Ball") as Harry Feversham, a highly respected young soldier who resigns his commission -- for reasons related to panic, not principle -- just as his regiment is being shipped off for the first time to battle Sudanese rebels.
"I never wanted to join the army," he whines. "I did it for my father. I thought I'd serve out my commission a year or two."
Branded a coward by his officer chums and even his fiancée (Kate Hudson, "Almost Famous"), Harry soon has an off-screen change of heart (the audience isn't privy to where he finds the resolve) and heads to Africa on his own, determined to redeem his honor.
Kapur ("Elizabeth") gets off on the wrong foot by failing to connect with Harry's heart on this matter. One minute our hero truly seems a coward despite the soundtrack's sappy insistence that we sympathize with him. A few shorthand scenes later, the ill-prepared aristocrat is traversing the desert alone, sporting a few weeks' growth of beard and ready to collapse from exhaustion and dehydration.
Rescued by a wandering African tribesman (typecast Djimon Hounsou from "Amistad" and "Gladiator") who just happens to be passing by, Harry soon has himself made up to look Arabic (although I doubt he'd fool anyone from the Middle East) so he can become a munitions-hauling servant for his own ex-battalion. He plans to bide his time until an opportunity to rescue his accusers from certain death presents itself. Along for the ride is the tribesman, Abou Fatma, who has pledged to protect Harry in that Noble Savage way native peoples so often do in Euro-centric adventure movies.
The fact that Harry is scared to death about all this could have made for a complex hero with interesting psychological obstacles to overcome. But while Ledger's performance in "The Four Feathers" is passively earnest, the character is so ill-defined there's simply nothing for the viewer to latch on to. Being stuck in a sandy wasteland feels like this guy's day job. Kapur never show Harry learning the ways of the desert, speaking any language but English or doing much for himself. Fatma has to save his butt time and again, and Harry's fear never manifests itself. We know next to nothing about him, save that he's bent on recovering his self-respect and the respect of his friends.
As you might expect when the hero is this one-dimensional, most of the movie's supporting characters are utterly indistinguishable. Wes Bentley ("American Beauty"), Michael Sheen ("Wilde") and a couple other actors I'm not even going to look up in the press kit play Harry's stiff-upper-lip accusers, each of whom find themselves in peril at some point, allowing our disguised protagonist to swoop in during extravagant, bloody desert battle sequences and save their lives amidst the musket smoke, dust and charging horses. Meanwhile, the rest of the imperialist English soldiers still get slaughtered so the movie can score its modern-perspective political points.
Even though "The Four Feathers" feels as if it goes on forever (in part because it has a poor sense of time passage), the picture was obviously edited down to just over two hours from a much longer first cut. It's riddled with plot holes, historical inaccuracies, a soap-operatic love triangle and Hollywood modernizations like contemporary hairstyles and fight scenes with head-butts. Blatantly designed to be a lavish Oscar magnet, the film also has "studio interference" written all over it, which comes as no surprise since micromanaging Miramax (which co-funded the film with Paramount) is notoriously director-unfriendly.
This may be why the film lacks emotional resonance. But it still doesn't explain common sense gaffes, as when Fatma says goodbye to Harry in the middle of the desert after one of the movie's false climaxes (there are at least two places Kapur could have ended it before he finally does much later). If the tribesman is supposed to be Harry's guardian, shouldn't he at least escort the man back to a town or port where he can arrange for transportation home?
A whole host of other otherwise shrug-able missteps pile up throughout the movie to the point of distraction -- including the very poor English spoken by these supposed British blue bloods (frilly fiancée Hudson refers to a group of friends as "You and her and Jack and I"), and the complete lack of backstory for Fatma. No explanation is given of how he knows English. No mention is made of where the rest of his tribe might be (he's clearly not local). He's just a mud-caked aborigine from Central Casting.
But such blunders are simply symptoms of the movie's problem as a whole: Far more effort went into making "The Four Feathers" seem grand and important than went into making it feel real, natural or sincere.
Run time: 132 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th September 2002
Box Office USA: $18.2M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: London Film Productions
Contactmusic.com: 1 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 41%
Fresh: 62 Rotten: 88
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Starring: John Laurie as Khalifa, John Clements as Harry Faversham, Ralph Richardson as John Durrance, June Duprez as Ethne Burroughs, Allan Jeayes as General Faversham, Jack Allen as Lieutenant Willoughby, Donald Gray as Peter Burroughs
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