"The Four Feathers"

Hoary epic of British Empire valor and cowardice, remade for seventh time, remains rot, old boy.

Published September 20, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

As much as I believe in allowing kids to read what they want, if I had a son I'm not sure I'd want him to go anywhere near "The Four Feathers." A.E.W. Mason's novel has been around for a century and has spawned seven film versions, including a TV movie and the new deluxe version directed by Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth"). The book is probably the purest fictional example of the mindset that has led countless young men through the ages to turn themselves into cannon fodder.

There's no denying it's a good, durable adventure tale (you don't get seven film versions out of material that doesn't work). But for me, at least, Mason's novel doesn't have the surging emotion of other books or movies that can get around everything you know about colonialism and still sweep you up in the romance of it. Mason stuffed his book with the old Victorian rot about honor and duty and sacrifice. What's missing is any acknowledgment that there are times when the more courageous thing to do is not fight (like when your country embarks on a mad colonial adventure).

The film versions of the novel, like Zoltan Korda's 1939 version starring John Clements and Ralph Richardson, were content to follow suit. Korda crafted a handsome, conventionally well-made picture but there may never have been another movie with so many stiff necks and stiff upper lips on display. The movie's idea of "empire" seems to be to make the world safe for British dullness. (The excitement is reserved for the masochistic excess of the scenes where the hero is branded, flogged and beaten.) Watching it today, you can't forget that in 1939 the movie was likely intended as a recruiting poster for World War II. But there's a big difference between fighting fascism and laying waste to a generation for the storybook idea of extending the Empire.

The hero of "The Four Feathers" is Harry Feversham, the descendant of a long line of military heroes who is expected to carry on the tradition by his overbearing authoritarian father. Terrified by the idea of battle and haunted since his childhood by the scornful stories he's heard of the men who proved cowardly in battle, Harry resigns his commission when his regiment is ordered to the Sudan, in 1875, to fight the forces that killed Gordon, the British military commander, at Khartoum.

Three of Harry's colleagues send him a white feather, the Victorian symbol of cowardice. The fourth feather comes from his fiancée, Ethne, who breaks off their engagement in embarrassment. Determined to redeem himself, Harry sets off for the Sudan and disguises himself as an Arab. Making his way to his former colleagues, he is presented with opportunities to prove his bravery to the men who held him in contempt.

The book is so immersed in Victorian values that it can seem to contradict itself. Mason didn't stint on describing the narrowness of veteran military men or the way they separate the reality of war from their nostalgic fantasies of glory in battle. Describing the tales fed into young Harry's brain, Mason writes, "They were stories of death, of hazardous exploits; of the pinch of famine and the chill of snow. But they were told in clipped words and with a matter-of-fact tone, as though the men who related them were only conscious of them as far-off things; and there was seldom a comment more pronounced than a mere 'that's curious,' or an exclamation more significant than a laugh."

He writes of Harry's father, Gen. Feversham, as a pontifical old bore and even describes some of the military men as "stupid." Harry is presented as a sensitive, perceptive young man, taking more after his dead mother than his father. And so Mason leads you to believe that Harry is meant for something better than his ancestors, or at least something different. A modern reader experiences Harry's refusal to go to the Sudan as good sense. But Mason intends it as something very different -- fear. It's not that Harry isn't meant for battle, just that he admits to the apprehension that other men hide or deny. His destiny as well as his duty, it turns out, is to be a soldier, and his redemption comes when he proves himself to be a courageous one.

We can still watch and enjoy movies like "Gunga Din" or "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer," still read Kipling, acknowledging them as products of their time. But by this point we've seen too much of the horrors of war, even justified war, for a contemporary movie to get by with the old notions of duty and the glory of battle. Shekhar Kapur, the Indian filmmaker who broke into the Western movie world with his 1998 "Elizabeth," knows this. So he and his screenwriters, Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini (who did the screenplay for Iain Softley's marvelous film of "The Wings of the Dove") have attempted to reimagine this material as a critique of British colonialism.

The opening sections, set in England, are shot by the cinematographer Robert Richardson in colors that are faded, muted and bled out, a dim memory of luxury and grace rather than the real thing. There are often large patches of black space at the edges of the frame, as if the British Empire itself had been draped in funeral bunting. And the opening sequence, a football match with the sound of crunching bones amplified on the soundtrack and proper ladies enjoying the muddy, bloody spectacle, serves as a metaphor for the Victorian fantasy of war as a manly endeavor.

Kapur does what he can to save the men fighting for the Sudanese Mahdi from becoming the anonymous "fuzzy-wuzzies," as they were called in the novel and the previous film versions (the soldiers call them "wogs," that venerable British slur for any and all others). There's an effective scene where Durrance (Wes Bentley) orders a Mahdi fighter to drop his rifle. The camera focuses on the defiance in the man's face as he refuses the order, calmly loading his rifle and pointing it at Bentley before being shot to death. In another sequence, we watch as British soldiers relentlessly pick off a line of unarmed advance Mahdi guardsmen. We see the British flogging an African warrior (Djimon Hounsou), who has saved Harry's life and is loyal to the British, because they can only believe him to be a native spy.

I don't think Kapur intends this, but Hounsou's warrior has more presence than any of the British characters -- Bentley is dull and determined, Heath Ledger is dull and tortured as Harry and Kate Hudson is dull and inert as Ethne. So does the Sudanese-born fashion model Alek Wek, who makes a lasting impression as a princess being sold into prostitution. Wek has a proud haughtiness, constantly cursing out her captor in a language he can't understand and shooting daggers from her eyes. It's a small role but Wek is the movie's most potent embodiment of daring, adventure and courage.

I didn't care for Kapur's "Elizabeth" but I respected what he was trying to do in it. Because of their inherent opulence, costume dramas often wind up fetishizing the period in which they're set, even if the intent is to criticize. Kapur, a director from a country that was once subjected to British colonialism, wasn't having any of that. He set out to make that era of the British past look dank and dirty and menacing and uninviting. The problem was that the movie was so cold it was impossible to care about anything in it.

Kapur has gotten himself into a similar pickle here. You can understand why he'd want to take a critical approach to British colonialism, but in the context of an adventure story that approach leaves the audience with nothing to root for. You don't want to see the British characters at the center of the story slaughtered (except for their commanding officer, who's such a supercilious martinet you can't wait to see him get it) but you can't cheer their cause either. And there's not enough of a historical context for us to have a stake in a Mahdi victory; they haven't been distinguished as characters either.

There are other problems. The British commanders have been rendered so one-dimensionally, as harrumphing fools, that we're left wondering why anyone would be taken in by them. Had Kapur allowed them some charisma, the appeal of colonial expansion might have come alive and we might have understood why so many young men allowed themselves to be caught up in that madness. But he's too didactic a filmmaker to muddy the waters in that way.

He's also a strangely reticent one. In some ways the most monstrous character in the story (even in earlier versions) is Ethne. It's one thing for men who have to go out and possibly get themselves killed to accuse a fellow soldier of not having the courage to fight with them. It's quite another for a woman whose sex and era prevent her from ever facing those dangers to do so. That's the essence of Victorian complacency. But, perhaps mindful of maintaining a love interest, Kapur is content to waste Hudson by having her stand around looking demure.

The filmmaking itself is undistinguished. For all the money that's been poured into this production, Kapur and his editor, Steven Rosenblum, can't render the action in a way that makes it coherent or thrilling. There's one breathtaking overhead shot of a British contingent besieged on all sides by Mahdi fighters. But most of the time there's no way of telling where any of the combatants are in relation to each other.

Kapur blows what should be shocking moments, as when Mahdi fighters who have buried themselves in sand rise up out of the earth to ambush the charging British soldiers. He's often careless about setting up sequences. When the besieged regiment spots what they believe to be an advancing troop of British cavalry, the only way we know they're mistaken is because we've seen Mahdi fighters dressing themselves in the uniforms of the British soldiers they've killed (a sick joke that carries a little sting). But Kapur doesn't even provide a shot of the disguised Mahdi riding in from the distance.

When I tried to think of a filmmaker who might possibly bring off the mix that Kapur is trying for here, the only one I could think of was John Huston. And Huston has already bettered this material in his 1975 film of Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King," which is not only one of the great rousing Hollywood adventure films but an ironic comedy about the blinkers of British colonialism, made with just the right balance of affection and distance.

For all of the contemporary post-colonialist consciousness that Kapur tries to bring to "The Four Feathers," the oddest thing about the movie is how it winds up affirming the same damn moldy values the material has always held dear. There's a speech toward the end that illustrates what Paul Fussell called the "ideological vacuum" of war, the fact that, in the heat of combat, it's not a cause or a country you're fighting for but the impulse to stay alive and to keep your comrades alive. As a definition of the soldier's experience in battle, who can doubt that?

The trouble is that Harry Feversham doesn't embark on his adventure to save his friends. He does that by coincidence. He goes to war to save himself from the stigma of cowardice, and that's as true in Kapur's version as it is in Mason's novel and the Korda film. For all the cold distance we feel from the action, for all Kapur's failure to rouse us, this is still very much "The Four Feathers." It still says that young men owe a debt of honor to the old men who are willing to sacrifice them for a romantic delusion. It still divides "natives" into the noble savage and the treacherous cutthroats. And it still has no place for the notion of moral courage, defining a man's worth entirely by his physical bravery. It's still horseshit.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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