Four Feathers, The (2002) * 1/2
Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Written by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, from the novel by A. E. W. Mason. Photography, Robert Richardson. Editing, Steven Rosenblum. Production design Allan Cameron. Music, James Horner. Cast: Heath Ledger (Harry Feversham), Kate Hudson (Ethne), Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Alek Wek, Tim Pigott-Smith , et al. Producers, Paul Feldsher, Marty Katz, Stanley R. Jaffe, Robert D. Jaffe. A Paramount release. 127 minutes. PG-13.
After getting his accounting degree in England, Shekhar Kapur ( b. 1945 in India) wisely decided to switch from the dullness of bean-counting to the excitement of movie-making. His "Mr. India" (1987) was good entertainment. The based-on-reality "Bandit Queen" (1994) was received with comments ranging from so-so to excelllent. The historical "Elizabeth" (1998) became a hit, justly so.
But with the umpteenth remake of "The Four Feathers" Kapur goes Kaputt. The previous film version was a splendid 1939 job produced by Alexander Korda, directed by Zoltan Korda and designed by Vincent Korda. The three brothers, Hungarian Jews, had moved to England in the 1930s. The weak British cinema was revived by them, especially by Alexander, who was knighted in 1942.
The very popular writer A.E.W. Mason (1865-1948) published his novel "The Four Feathers" in 1907. It was a triumph. The book was read by millions in successive generations. The story was set in 1884-85, at the height of the Victorian era's spreading colonization of the world.
Harry Faversham and his best friends were newly commissioned Lieutenants. Harry had just become engaged to posh Ethne when his regiment was ordered to the Sudan.
Now for some history. General Charles Gordon had been nicknamed "Chinese Gordon" for his crushing of a huge rebellion in China. Later he was governor of the Sudan, which was ruled by Egypt which was ruled by England. One of his tasks was humanitarian : to stop the lighter-skinned Sudanese Muslims from selling the black Sudanese to slave traders. After returning to England, Gordon was again dispatched to the Sudan. Mohammed Ahmad, a sort of warlord and Islamic fundamentalist, calling himself the Mahdi (the guide) had started a revolt in 1880. By 1885 the largest city, Karthoum, had fallen and Gordon was killed.
In the book and the films, when Harry's regiment gets its marching orders, Harry, to the stupefaction of all --military and civilian--resigns his commission and becomes an official coward. Each of his former best friends sends him a white feather, the symbol of cowardice. Later, for reasons left muddy in the current movie, Harry has a change of heart. He travels to Africa. In ludicrous disguises as a native he tries to reach his former friends and save them from destruction by the Mahdi. Matters go from the murky and unexplained to the improbable and the impossible. But Harry does redeem himself.
Except for some backgrounds (all filmed in Morocco) the film is awful. It drags from the opening shots of a protracted game of rugby to the protracted engagement of Harry and his lady, and to everything else.
During the show I scribbled furiously comments that kept going from bad to worse. It would take pages and pages to copy them here. Suffice to say that there is no logic, sense or verissimilitude anywhere, the individual scenes are a mess, so is the continuity. Gaps and non-sequiturs abound. This dud is overcut, overkinetic (the camera moves and moves, for no reason), overwrought, overvague, overplayed,undernourished and most fatiguing. The Brits come out as kinda stupid. Is this the director's revenge --whether conscious or not--for England's colonialism? What a waste of those splendid red and gold uniforms, in which nobody ever sweats!
The senses of time and space are a fiasco. The performances run from wooden to somnambulistic, the principals' accents are wrong.
It is surprising that the timing of releasing this movie is so tactless. Yes, in the olden days, there were many superiority-complexed Kiplingesque films about England as Britannia, such as "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer,""Gunga Din," or, yes with Shirley Temple! "Wee Willy Winkie." Yes, they were fun and in keeping with their times. But that was then, this is now. True, the Sudan keeps mistreating its people in the South. True, many Muslim vs. non-Muslim relations are disastrous. But to stress this in a bad film set 120 years ago is not exactly what we need in 2002.