`The Four Feathers' ends up battling for viewer sympathy

Main character's motives muddled in adaptation

September 20, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The new version of The Four Feathers would make better sense if battle feathers adorned the head of Djimon Hounsou's African Muslim warrior, who helps the nominal white hero, played by Heath Ledger, regain his self-respect during the British army's mid-1880s crusade against the Islamic fanatic known as the Mahdi.

Ledger's character resigns his commission before his regiment is posted to the Sudan; he feels more certain about his impending marriage to his beautiful fiancee (Kate Hudson) than about his country's war aims. But when three close army pals and Hudson each give him a white feather signifying cowardice, he realizes he acted partly out of fear, and sets about reclaiming his honor - traveling to the Sudan, disguising himself as an Arab and serving as guardian angel to his onetime buddies.

At least, that's what the movie hopes to convey. Actually, director Shekhar Kapur and his screenwriters (Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini) do such a lousy job of adapting A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel that they never clarify Ledger's motives or make us care about his muddle. Our sympathies turn to Hounsou, who protects this white man at every juncture.

Hounsou last had this showy a role in Spielberg's Amistad (1997). He brings such sinewy ardor and robust humor to the picture he almost compels us to disregard its failure to provide his character with believable incentive. Basically, we're meant to feel that he makes a mystical connection with Ledger because (as he tells the lad) "God put you in my way"; that's why he remains steadfast even when Ledger's Brit pals disregard his good advice and flog him for his trouble.

Because this Four Feathers is an utter botch, it might make savvy viewers feel that the subject matter is hopeless. Actually, Zoltan Korda's classic 1939 film starring John Clements and Ralph Richardson (which eliminated Hounsou's character altogether) is vastly more intelligent about British militarism and courage than this revisionist take on the subject. Korda's film treats the tradition of service at all costs, embodied by the hero's father, as a subject for nightmare satire; one of the boldest black-comic scenes in any movie is the 1939 opening of the military patriarch traumatizing his boy with horrifying army tales of the Crimean War.

The new-millennial version eliminates that scene and short-circuits the character's arc. To make us see soldiering as the height of Victorian virility and cool, it begins with the young officers bruising their way through a rugby scrum and then celebrating the hero's engagement like rowdy club boys. This attempt at connecting with 2002 audiences backfires because the filmmakers also want to emphasize their awareness of British-colonial tunnel vision. They view rugby the way Peter Davis viewed American football in his Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds - as an expression of imperial aggressiveness.

When the action shifts to the Sudan, the dueling motives grow even more pronounced: Ledger appears to be protecting the last vestige of British valor as well as his own, since the commanders are portrayed as fools. Kapur and his cameraman, Robert Richardson, hit on individual images that are striking: hordes of the Mahdi's men surrounding the British army "square" on all four sides and overwhelming it in waves; prisoners crammed into jail as if they're in some lethal mosh pit. But they never give you a lucid, spine-tingling sense of ravaged landscapes or sadistic architecture.

Kapur (Bandit Queen, Elizabeth) is not an actor's director. Ledger doesn't suggest enough sensitivity or imagination to understand this story's concept of cowardice; Bentley (as his closest British pal) is at best a competent heart-tugger; and Hudson can't connect the dots of a woman who reverses her position on Ledger every time we look at her. Except for Hounsou, the actors recede into the general Sturm and Drang. Kapur turns slow-motion shots into exclamation marks and uses them incessantly; it's as if he's capping every sentence with "!!!!!!"

The Four Feathers

Starring Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou

Directed by Shekhar Kapur

Released by Paramount/Miramax

Rated PG-13

Time 127 minuteS

SUN SCORE: * 1/2

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