At the Movies - 'The Four Feathers'

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Associated Press Writer

"The Four Feathers" is a war epic for 15-year-old girls, the dunderheaded saga of a dreamboat who loses his courage and his girl, fights to win them back, succeeds and, unfazed by it all, goes back to being a dreamboat again.

The details - that he's an English soldier, it's 1875 and he goes to the Sudan to assist in Her Majesty's global effort to civilize the heathens - matter not at all. All that matters is that the psychology makes sense to the American teenagers to whom this pointedly PG-13 film is designed to appeal.

Thus Lt. Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) makes no political objection to the British colonial mission when his regiment is sent to war; he's just afraid of combat and wants to stay home and marry his fiancee, Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson). Besides, this whole soldier thing was his father's idea, anyway. So he resigns his commission.

Three of Harry's friends, who have a more plausible sense of duty, send him white feathers as a symbol of his cowardice, with Ethne eventually contributing a fourth.

Through it all, these supposedly upper-crust Brits speak and behave like contemporary American children. Director Shekhar Kapur betrays his lack of interest in representing Englishness in any convincing way by casting an Australian (Ledger) and two Americans (Hudson and Wes Bentley) in the lead roles. Their accents, so thin and casual, invite scorn.

When Ethne confronts Harry with the scandal of his desertion, he responds, "I don't care what people think. All I care about is us." Henry James this ain't; feel free to be shocked that screenwriter Hossein Amini, who adapted A.E.W. Mason's 1901 novel with Michael Schiffer, previously adapted "The Wings of the Dove" for the fine 1997 film. (This is at least the sixth version of "The Four Feathers," including a well-regarded 1939 version.)

The friends go to war, led by Lt. Jack Durrance (Bentley), who declines to send Harry a feather but has no reservations about stealing his bird. The perpetual third wheel to Harry and Ethne, Jack senses his opening immediately and begins writing her letters detailing his heroic exploits.

Shamed by the feathers, Harry journeys to the Sudan on his own, and then, amazingly, "The Four Feathers" gets worse, becoming not only politically and culturally ignorant but racially backward as well. Harry is sprawled in the desert, near death, when, right on cue, along comes the terrific West African actor Djimon Hounsou.

Like Will Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and Don Cheadle in "The Family Man" - roles that prompted a much-needed tongue-lashing by Spike Lee - Hounsou plays an angelic black man who exists solely to make things easier for the white hero. For no reason, he rescues Harry and - quickly, implausibly - helps him infiltrate a band of Sudanese rebels to get close to his old regiment.

Hounsou's Abou Fatma goes on to endure numerous hardships with an aw-shucks affability, happy only to serve his master. He's a cipher with no history, no future and, of course, no motive whatsoever for his actions. When Harry asks Abou about the source of his kindness, he responds: "God put you in my way."

None of this nonsense is Hounsou's fault - there aren't many roles for beautiful, musclebound natives of Benin. And it's probably the movie's best performance: He's more charismatic than Ledger and appears to be having a great time.

By the time Kapur lays bare the absurdity of British combat tactics in a big central battle sequence, "The Four Feathers" is already flailing in the wind; no amount of spectacle can save it. Narratively and visually incoherent, it lurches forward without finding time to explain the Sudanese position or even to detail where in the Sudan they're fighting, and why.

Kapur's cinematic assuredness has eroded in the nearly four years since his last film, the robust "Elizabeth." More upsetting, this native of British India plays the apologist for colonialism in all its offhand brutality to thousands of faceless Arabs and Africans.

If "The Four Feathers" had a central argument, it would go something like this: Sure, the British had no business being there, but they were so valiant and so darn cute! More than a century later, who can stay mad?

"The Four Feathers," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disturbing images, violence and some sensuality. Running time: 135 minutes. One star out of four.

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