“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.

A Few Observations of “MAD MEN”: (3.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo”

After viewing the latest episode of ”MAD MEN” called (3.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo”, I came up with the following observations: 
A Few Observations of “MAD MEN”: (3.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo”*Ever since his affair with Suzanne Farrell began in (3.09) “Wee Small Hours”, Don Draper has been increasingly dismissive of Betty’s presence. In some ways, he seemed to be in a great hurry to get her and the kids out of the house. And that is understandable, considering that he had proposed to Suzanne, a trip to Mystic, Connecticut during Betty’s absence in order to continue their romantic interlude.*The scene in which Betty asked Don for more money before her departure reminded me at how women were (and probably still are) regarded as children by their husband. I could not help but wonder if the $200 dollars in Betty’s bank account is regarded as nothing more than allowance by both of them.

*Annabelle Mathis seems to be the first woman since Mona Sterling who seemed to have a romantic connection to Roger. She must have hurt him a great deal when she dumped him to marry another man to run her father’s dog food company, Caldecott Farms. Some fans have suggested that Annabelle’s earlier rejection of him may have led to his cavalier attitude toward women. I have no answer in regard to that suggestion. But I could sense that the attraction between them had remained strong.

*Like many of the series’ fans and Don in (3.03) “My Kentucky Home”, Annabelle seemed dismissive of Roger’s marriage to the 20-something Jane. Whether they are right or wrong remains to be seen. Judging from his conversation with Joan Harris over her request to find additional work, it is obvious that Roger still have feelings for the red-haired former office manager. But he had rejected Annabelle’s overtures on Jane’s behalf.

*I am a little confused over the situation regarding Gene Hofstadt’s house. Correct me if I am wrong, but did he give 50/50 ownership of the house to both Betty and William? What are the exact terms regarding the inheritance? Does anyone know?

*I never had any idea that the divorce laws for New York State were so stringent that the Hofstadts’ attorney, Milton Lowell, would advise Betty to remain married to Don. Was this only the case for women? Or did men who longed for a divorce from their wives also faced difficulties?

*I find it interesting that Annabelle Mathis seemed very reluctant to follow Don and Roger’s advice about changing the brand name of her product. Are they right? After all, Caldecott Farms is one of the companies reeling from the horse meat/dog food expose. If Don had been the only one advising Annabelle to do this, I would have sympathized more with her. I might as well be honest. Don has a history of not only following this advice himself – a tactic he had used to escape from Korea – but he had advised Peggy to forget the reason why she had ended up in the hospital in November/December 1960. Perhaps Don’s past history in this particular area may have led me to be a little prejudiced against his advice. But Roger had offered the same advice. And considering that the topic is dog food, I really do not see why Annabelle would ignore such advice.

*How did Joan Harris’ husband, Greg, expect to transfer from the field of medical surgery to psychiatry so easily? Would that have required his return to school . . . even in 1963?

*After Joan’s encounter with Sally Draper in Season Two’s (2.04) “Three Sundays”, I had believed that she was not the maternal type. I changed my mind. Watching Joan help Greg practice with his job interview, I realized that she is the maternal type . . . but with grown men.

*I might as well be frank. I found nothing to cheer about Joan’s assault upon Greg. I found it childish and violent. I realize that Joan was weary of Greg’s self-pity act and childish whining. But Joan proved that she could be just as violent and childish as her husband, when she struck him on the head with that vase, out of her own frustration and anger. And Greg’s reaction to Joan’s assault was similar to Joan’s reaction to Greg’s rape. As Joan had done last season, Greg caved in and begged her forgiveness for being whiny. I found it just as disgusting, as I had found Joan’s decision to go ahead with the marriage. But what really disgusted me was how many fans had condoned Joan’s violent act.

*When the Suzanne Farrell character first appeared, I did not like her. I did not like the idea of Sally Draper’s teacher having an affair with Don. Mind you, I do not dislike Suzanne any more. Actually, I feel rather sorry for her. Despite her past experience with married man, meeting Don had led her to drop her guard and risk encountering further heartache. Watching her climb out of Don’s car and slink away from the Draper residence was rather sad.

*On the other hand, I do not feel that Jon Hamm (who portrays Don) and Abigail Spencer (who portrays Suzanne) have any screen chemistry. I simply do not see the magic. Perhaps that is the main reason I found it difficult to buy the Don/Suzanne affair.

*The expression on Don’s face when he realized that Sally, Bobby and Betty had returned from Philadelphia a lot sooner was priceless. He looked as if someone had pulled a rug from underneath him. Actually, this is exactly what Betty was about to do.

*Jon Hamm and January Jones were superb in this episode. Honestly. Both did an excellent job of conveying this moment of truth in the Draper marriage. Watching Hamm convey Don’s transformation from “Master of the Universe” Don Draper to the frightened Dick Whitman was amazing. The man not only deserves an Emmy nomination, he deserves to win the award . . . unless someone else can do better. It took me a while to get over the Emmys’ failure to nominate January Jones for a Best Actress award for last season. After her performance in this episode, it would be downright criminal if they fail to nominate her.

*There was an episode in late Season One, in which Betty was visiting her psychiatrist, Dr. Wayne. He had said something that obviously annoyed her. And she reacted by sitting up and giving him a dark look. That look told me that regardless of any personality flaws that she possessed, Betty might prove to be a formidable woman. Kicking Don out of the house at the end(2.08) “A Night to Remember” and her confrontation with him in this episode has proven me right.

*So . . . Greg upped and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a surgeon/officer. He claimed that since he will acquire the rank of captain, Joan would not have to work. Whether he is right or not, I suspect that Joan is not the type to sit around the apartment and collect Greg’s checks. Unless Matt Weiner proves otherwise. Some fans see Greg’s entry into the Army as an opportunity for his character to end up in Vietnam . . . and dead. And a widowed Joan will be able to seek solace with Roger Sterling. Hmmm. Last year, many had assumed that Joan would not go ahead with her marriage to Greg after the rape. Weiner proved them wrong. Perhaps Greg will end up dead. Then again . . . perhaps not.

*I was relieved that Don finally told Betty the truth about his background. However, I was surprised that he had described his stepfather – Uncle Mac – as being kind to him. Yet, in (1.10) “The Long Weekend”, Don had described his stepfather to Rachel Mencken in a different way:

””You told me your mother died in childbirth. Mine did too. She was a prostitute. I don’t know what my father paid her, but when she died they brought me to him, and his wife. And when I was ten years old he died. He was a drunk who got kicked in the face by a horse. She buried him and took up with some other man, and I was raised by…those two sorry people.”

Don did not have any kind words to say about his father Archie, his stepmother Abigail or his stepfather Mac. Yet in last Sunday’s episode, he had kind words for Mac. To whom had he told the truth – Rachel or Betty?

*Speaking of Don’s half-truths, I noticed that he had put a twist on his story about how he had left Korea. Audiences know that Dick Whitman had accidentally killed the real Don Draper by accidentally dropping a lit match into gasoline. Audiences also know that he had deliberately switched dog tags with the officer. Yet, he told Betty that that the real Draper was simply killed and that the Army had mistakenly switched their identities. Even in confession, Don Draper aka Dick Whitman cannot be completely truthful.

“DEFIANCE” (2008) Review



“DEFIANCE” (2008) Review

After watching Edward Zwick’s latest film, ”DEFIANCE”, I am finally beginning to realize that it does not pay to make assumptions about a movie, based upon a theater trailer. I have already made this mistake several times throughout my life and it irks me that I am still making it. I certainly made this mistake when I saw the trailer for ”DEFIANCE”, a World War II drama that told the story of the war experiences of four Polish-Jewish brothers who ended up forming a partisan resistance group against the occupying Nazis between 1941 and 1942. 

Based upon the book, ”Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec, ”DEFIANCE” centered around the Bielski brothers – Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay – who had escaped their Nazi-occupied homeland of Eastern Poland/West Belarus and joined the Soviet partisans to combat the Nazis. The brothers eventually rescued roughly 1,200 Jews. The film tracked their struggle to evade invading German forces, while still maintaining their mission to save Jewish lives. When I had first learned about this film, I had assumed this would be some rousing World War II tale about a brave resistance against the Nazi horde. I really should have known better. I should have taken into account the film’s director – namely Edward Zwick.

The first Zwick film I had ever seen was the 1989 Civil War drama, ”GLORY”. In that movie and other movies directed by him, most of the characters are never presented as one-dimensional, black-and-white characters. Shades of gray permeated most, if not all of his characters, including most memorably – Denzel Washington in ”GLORY”, Annette Bening in ”SIEGE”, Tom Cruise in ”THE LAST SAMURAI” and both Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. Zwick continued his tradition of presenting ambiguous characters and morally conflicting issues in ”DEFIANCE”. Moral ambiguity seemed to be the hallmark in the portrayal of at least two of the Bielski brothers. Both Tuvial and Zus Bielski (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) are strong-willed and ruthless men, willing to kill anyone who crossed them. And both seemed willing to enact vengeance against anyone have harmed their loved ones. But they had their differences.

Daniel Craig had the job of portraying Tuvial Bielski, the oldest sibling who decides to create a community and a brigade with the Jewish refugees hiding from the Nazis and their Polish allies. His Tuvial seemed a little reluctant to take on this task – at least at first. And he also seemed unsure whether he could be a competent leader. Thanks to Craig’s performance, this insecurity of Tuvial’s seemed to slowly grow more apparent by the movie’s second half. Being the more-than-competent actor that he is, Craig also managed to portray other aspects of Tuvial’s nature – his ruthlessness, tenderness and sardonic sense of humor (which seemed to be apparent in the Bielski family overall). And like any good actor, he does not try to hog the limelight at the expense of his co-stars. Craig created sizzling on-screen chemistry with Schreiber, Bell and the actress who portrayed Tuvial’s future wife, Alexa Davalos.

Liev Schreiber portrayed Zus, the second oldest Bielski brother. And being the charismatic actor that he is, Schreiber did an excellent job of portraying the volatile second brother, Zus. Upon learning the deaths of his wife and child, Schreiber’s Zus seemed determined to exact revenge upon the Nazis for their deaths. Even if it meant walking away from his brothers and joining the Soviet partisans. Another aspect of Zus’ character that Schreiber made so memorable was the intense sibling rivalry he injected into his relationship with Craig’s Tuvial. Unlike his older brother, Zus’s volatile nature made him more inclined to exact revenge against the Nazis and other enemies. Also, Schreiber perfectly brought out Zus’ contempt and dislike toward those Jewish refugees who came from a higher social class than his family’s.

Portraying the third Bielski brother is Jamie Bell, a young English actor who had also appeared in movies such as ”KING KONG” (2005) and ”JUMPER” (2008). Bell did an excellent job of portraying the young and slightly naïve Asael, the third Bielski brother who experiences as a partisan with Tuvial enabled him to mature as a fighter and a man. His Asael does not seem to possess his older brothers’ ruthlessness . . . on the surface. But as the refugees struggle to survive their first winter together and evade the Nazis in the movie’s last half hour, Bell brought out Asael’s toughness that had been hidden by a reserved and slightly shy nature.

”DEFIANCE” also included an additional cast that greatly supported the three leads. There were at least three that caught my interest. Alexa Davalos expertly portrayed Lilka Ticktin, an aristocratic Polish Jew, whose delicate looks and quiet personality hid a strong will and warmly supportive nature. Both Mark Feuerstein as the intellectual Isaac Malbin and Allan Corduner as a professor named Shamon Haretz humorously provided comic relief in their never-ending philosophical debates that seemed to elude the less intellectual Bielskis. The rest of the cast featured supporting players and local Lithuanians portraying the refugees. Basically, they did a pretty good job in conveying the refugees’ plight. There were moments when their acting seemed like one, long running cliché. And there were moments – like the sequence featuring their fatal beating of the captured German soldier – in which they seemed very effective.

”DEFIANCE” is not perfect. As I had stated earlier, the supporting and background characters tend to drift into cliché performances sometimes. The movie’s pacing threatened to drag in two places – when the Bielskis first began to gather the refugees that followed them; and later in the film when Tuvial’s camp suffer their first ”winter of discontent”. James Newton Howard’s score did not help matters. I found it slow and unoriginal and it threatened to bog down the film in certain scenes.

But the movie definitely had its moments – including the sequence featuring the lynching of the German soldier. It was one of many that accentuated the gray and complex nature of ”DEFIANCE”. On one hand, the audience could not help but empathize with the refugees’ anger at what the German soldier represented – the deaths of their loved ones and the dark turn their lives had taken. On the other hand, the entire sequence struck me as ugly and dark. Mob violence at its worse. Even Asael (Bell) seemed disgusted by the refugees’ lynching of the soldier . . . and Tuvial’s failure to stop them. Another ambiguous scene centered around one of the refugees – a rogue soldier of Tuvial’s brigade named Arkady Lubczanski – who tries to lead a rebellion against an ill Tuvial during a food shortage. Arkady is portrayed as an unpleasant man who lusts after Asael’s bride and believes that he and his fellow soldiers in the brigade are entitled to more food than the refugees. Tuvial ends the rebellion by killing Arkady. Granted, Arkady had not harmed anyone – aside from giving Asael a shiner. On the other hand, his practice of hoarding the food could have ended with death by starvation for most of the refugees. Had Tuvial been right to commit murder? Apparently, the refugees did not seem so. They did not protest against his act of murder.

This is what Edward Zwick is all about. This is why I am a major fan of many of his movies. Superficially, he presents his story in a black-and-white situation. The Nazis, their Polish allies, anti-Semitic Soviet troops and unpleasant refugees like Arkady are presented superficially as one-note villains. Yet, the people who oppose them – the Bielski brothers, their loved ones, their Polish and Soviet allies and the refugees – turn out not to be as “good” or perfect as many would believe. In Ed Zwick’s movies, the world is not as black and white as we might believe . . . or wish it would be.