“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

To my knowledge, there have been seven cinematic versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 adventure story, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS”. The first version was released in 1915 as a black-and-white silent film. The most famous and highly revered version was produced by legendary producer Alexander Korda in 1939. And the latest version – the focus of this review – was released in 2002. Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson and Wes Bentley starred in the film. And it was directed by Shekhar Kapur.

”THE FOUR FEATHERS” began with Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young British officer of the Royal Cumbrians infantry regiment and the son of a stern British general, celebrating his recent engagement to the beautiful young Ethne (Kate Hudson) in a lavish ball with his fellow officers and his father in attendance. When the regimental colonel announced that the regiment is being dispatched to Egyptian-ruled Sudan to rescue the British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon (who was being besieged in Khartoum by Islamic rebels of The Mahdi), young Faversham became nervous and resigned his commission. After resigning his commission, Harry’s charmed life began to fall apart. Despite his claims that his decision to in order to stay in England with new fiancée because he would never “go to war for anyone or anything”, three of his fellow officers – Tom Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones), Edward Castleton (Kris Marshall) and William Trench (Michael Sheen) censured Harry by delivery three white feathers (signs of cowardice). Ethne ended their engagement and presented him with a fourth feather. And both Harry’s best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) and his father, General Faversham (Tim Piggott-Smith) disavowed him. With his former comrades already en route to the conflict, the young Faversham questioned his own true motives, and resolved to redeem himself through combat in Sudan. Disguised as an Arab laborer, he accompanied a French slave trader to take him deep into the Sudanese desert. Faversham is left alone in the vast sands when the slave trader is killed by his own Sudanese slaves. Eventually a lone black Sudanese warrior named Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), who is against the Mahdists’ rebellion, came to Harry’s aid and helped the latter redeem himself through combat against the Mahdists.

In the beginning, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” bore a strong resemblance to the 1902 novel it is based upon and the 1939 movie. Granted, in this version, General Faversham is a living and somewhat stern parent, and not some dead military hero in whose shadow Harry is forced to live. And Ethne’s father is dead. The most important aspect of this version of the story is the fact that the British presence in the Sudan is not portrayed in a sympathetic light. Following Colonel Hamilton’s (Alex Jennings) announcement of the Royal Cumbrians being deployed to the Sudan, Harry made this comment to Jack:

” “What does a godforsaken desert, in the middle of nowhere, have to do with Her Majesty the Queen?”

Mind you, I did not take Harry’s question as a commentary against British Imperialism. I suspect that Harry’s question had more to do with him dreading the idea of going to war than any anti-Imperialist sympathies. But once the story shifted toward the Sudan, the anti-British Imperialism messages came across in the following scenes:

*The Royal Cumbrians’ encounter with a Sudanese sniper
*Harry’s travels with the French slave trader and the latter’s “merchandise”
*Abou Fatma’s attempt to warn the Royal Cumbrians of an impending attack and his treatment at their hands
*Ethne’s regret over her rejection of Harry
*Harry and Abou’s conversations about the differences between Eastern and Western culture

Surprisingly, the European characters are not the only ones shown to be capable of bigotry. Abou Fatma has to deal with the Sudanese Arab soldiers who seemed offended by his presence, due to his kinship with the tribe that had served as slaves for the soldiers’ families and ancestors. Also, both Harry and Trench, along with other British and anti-Mahdist prisoners have to deal with the malevolent commander of the prison camp at Omdurman, Idris-Es-Saier, whose hatred toward them stemmed from the death of his family by British artillery.

As I had stated earlier, the 1939 version (which starred John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson) is considered to be the best version of Mason’s novel. I have seen the 1939 version and I must admit that I found it pretty damn enjoyable. As much as I found the 1939 version entertaining, I must admit that this latest version – directed by Shekhar Kapur – happens to be my favorite. Like the other versions of this tale, it is filled with exciting action and does an excellent job of recapturing both British and the Sudanese societies in the late nineteenth century, thanks to Allan Cameron’s production design, Ahmed Abounouom and Zack Grobler’s art direction and Robert Richardson’s photography. But for me, the movie proved to be more than simply a costumed adventure film. Thanks to the ”political correctness” slant provided by screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini and especially Shekhar Kapur’s direction; this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” seemed to have more emotional depth and ambiguity than other versions. Not only did Kapur and the two writers challenge the positive view on the British Empire, but also Western views on masculinity and Islamic cultures.

One of the biggest criticisms directed at this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” centered around the movie’s major action sequence – namely the Battle of Abu Klea. During the actual historical battle, which had been fought between January 16-18, 1885, the famous British square had been briefly broken by the Mahdists before it closed, forcing the latter to retreat. In the movie, the square formed by the Royal Cumbrians was permanently broken, resulting in the regiment’s retreat, Castleton’s death and Trench’s capture by Mahdists. In other words, the movie received criticism for not being historically accurate. The charge of historical inaccuracy does have validity. But I do find the critics’ accusations rather hypocritical, considering that hardly no one paid attention to the historical inaccuracy of another Kapur movie, namely the 1998 Academy Award nominated film, ”ELIZABETH”. I can only assume that it is easier to criticize a film that challenged Western culture for historical inaccuracy and ignore the same flaw in a film that celebrated a famous Western monarch.

Before I end this review, I want to say something about the performances. ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” possessed an excellent supporting cast that featured an entertaining Michael Sheen as the witty and extroverted William Trench, a competent Rupert Penry-Jones as the regiment’s finicky and slightly narrow-minded Tom Willoughby, and an excellent Deobia Oparei who portrayed the intimidating Idris-Es-Saier. Kris Marshall’s performance as the religious Edward “Vicar” Willoughby seemed pretty solid, but there were moments when I found it slightly overwrought. Wes Bentley portrayed Jack Durrance, Harry’s reserved best friend who was also in love with Ethne. I must admit that I found myself very impressed by Bentley’s performance. He did an excellent job of portraying a very intense character whose emotions were conveyed through his eyes and expressions. And as far as I am concerned, Djimon Hounsou could do no wrong in this movie. His portrayal of the enigmatic Abou Fatma was spot on. His performance could have easily become another example of one of those ”Magical Negro” roles in which a non-white character dispensed wisdom and comfort to the main white character. Yes, Fatma offered some advice and assistance to Harry Faversham. But thanks to Schiffer and Amini’s script and Hounson’s performance, Fatma became a more complicated character that ended up undergoing his own journey in becoming acquainted with someone from another culture.

Kate Hudson did an excellent job in portraying the spirited Ethne, Harry’s fiancée and the object of Jack’s desire. Hudson’s portrayal of Ethne was interesting and a little unexpected. I had expected her to react with anger over Harry’s lies about his resignation from the Army and fear over the opinions of society. I had expected her to form a closer friendship with Jack – a friendship that eventually led to their engagement. What I had not expected was for Ethne to express regret over her rejection of Harry. In this movie, Harry did not have to earn back her love through heroic acts in the Sudan. Interestingly, Ethne felt both guilt and self-disgust for worrying about how the rest of society would view Harry’s resignation and her association with him. I realize this is another example of the ”political correctness” found in the movie’s script. Frankly, I welcomed it. This slant made Ethne’s character a lot more interesting to me. And Hudson did a hell of a job with what was given to her.

We finally come to Heath Ledger’s performance as Harry Faversham, the disgraced Army officer who tried to find redemption in the Sudanese desert. The interesting thing about Harry’s character was that he truly was guilty of cowardice. Some of his cowardice centered on his lie to Ethne about his reason for leaving the Army. But for me, Harry’s worst act of cowardice occurred before the movie began. He buckled under pressure from society and especially his father, General Faversham, and joined the Royal Cumbrians as an officer. He allowed society, Ethne and his father to pressure him into assuming a life filled with lies. I suspect that Harry believed that as long as his regiment remained in England, he would have no problems maintaining the lie. But he could no longer maintain the lie when Colonel Hamilton announced the regiment’s deployment to the Sudan. The most interesting aspect about Harry’s journey was that he did not reach the nadir of his emotional journey until late into the film. The nadir did not happen when he received the white feathers from his friends and Ethne. Nor did it happened when he found himself stranded in the desert with nothing but a camel, when he discovered via Jack’s letters that the latter and Ethne had formed a deeper bond, or when he found himself in the Omdurman prison camp with Trench. No, Harry’s nadir finally arrived when he stripped away any civil façade of himself and he killed Idris-Es-Saier. At that moment, Harry’s true animal self – something that all human beings possessed – was finally revealed.

I must admit that I am curious over Ledger’s reputation as an actor before he did ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” (2005). I would be very surprised if it took his role as Ennis de Mar for critics to take his skills as an actor seriously. Quite frankly, I was very impressed by his performance as Harry Faversham. Both the script and Kapur’s direction gave Ledger the opportunity to reveal the full length of his character’s journey – from the self-satisfied, yet cowardly Army officer to the private gentleman who is not only more sure of himself, but more honest as well.

I wish I could say that Kapur’s version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” is for everyone. I suspect that it is not. If I must be brutally honest, I suspect that a good number of fans of the Mason’s story would be put off by the so-called ”revisionist”take on the story. They would probably prefer a version in which Harry Faversham learns to find his capacity for physical or military courage. Or a version in which the British victory over the Mahdist rebels are celebrated and the Empire appreciated. But as much as I like this version of Mason’s story – especially embodied in the 1939 film – I must admit that I much prefer this latest version directed by Shekhar Kapur. Not only did I find myself impressed by the cast’s performances, I found the movie more emotionally deep and complex. More importantly, it questioned the ideals and beliefs that had been the bulwark of 19th century and still harbor some influence upon many societies today.

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