'Four Feathers' blows in the cultural winds

Unlike 'Lawrence of Arabia,' this remake of a 1939 desert epic belittles one side


September 22, 2002|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,Sun Movie Critic

At the end of December 1962, roughly three weeks after Lawrence of Arabia had its premiere, the screenwriter, Robert Bolt, wrote the director, David Lean, that a Muslim psychoanalyst friend of his had called him up and said, "it was the first picture he has seen in which a Muslim people were accorded absolutely equal status with the whites, being neither sentimentalized nor belittled. On the other hand, you know, I don't think the Zionists could say we'd made a pro-Arab picture. ... It's when you start truckling to this or that expectation that you give offense."

How right Bolt was and is -- both about Lawrence of Arabia and the need for artists to explore the truth without bowing to cultural biases. And how fortuitous is the reopening this past Friday of Lawrence of Arabia, undiminished in its power, and a new version of the British colonial epic The Four Feathers, a prime example of filmmakers truckling to expectations and thus giving offense.

The 2002 edition of The Four Feathers bends over backward to be critical of imperialist Anglos and supportive of native cultures. In trying to balance their portrait of a messianic Islamic uprising in Sudan of the 1880s, the filmmakers inflate the character of a righteous African Muslim (played by Djimon Hounsou) until he takes over the movie from its nominal hero, Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger). And what do they get for their pains? Justified derision, even from mainstream media like the Associated Press, for creating "an angelic black man who exists solely to make things easier for the white man."

Hounsou, at least, is entertaining. What's fatal to this Four Feathers is the moviemakers' tendency to make the British Army characters banal or stupid; the picture never gives the audience a reason to root for their survival. The filmmakers introduce Harry Feversham not as a troubled, imaginative boy, but as a full-grown man carrying on like a present-day jock at a kegger and then spouting glib doubts about the need to trek through the Sudanese desert to protect the queen. He's a combination of a spring-break heartthrob and a reflex rebel afflicted with a backdated, trans-Atlantic strain of Vietnam Syndrome.

So his choice to resign his commission on the eve of his regiment's assignment to the Sudan and to stay with his fiancee carries no weight. When three pals and his betrothed each hand him a white feather as tokens of cowardice, there's no force to Harry's realization that he may have acted partly

out of fear. His later decision to ship out alone and earn back his good name, saving his buddies' hides again and again -- a surefire narrative hook -- becomes irreparably flimsy.

The filmmakers' scattershot critique of imperial aggression colors everything from their depiction of rugby scrums to battlefield hubris, yet does nothing to create an original perspective on the material. Ironically, this movie's whiff of radical chic from a bygone era won't help it with cognoscenti like that AP correspondent, who will still proclaim it a Victorian relic.

Heady conquest

As a movie critic, what irks me is that this movie's debacle has caused film critic-historians as accomplished and knowledgeable as Variety's Todd McCarthy to say that the 1939 version of The Four Feathers "was drenched in the sort of patriotic God, King and Country sentiments that seem quaint today at best." The 1939 Technicolor film, produced, directed and designed by brothers Alexander, Zoltan and Vincent Korda, respectively, is one of the most beautiful of all desert spectacles. One shot of a mauve haze circling some distant ruddy mountains ranks with the impassioned imagery of Lawrence.

How can you grasp the reasons men have for making imperial conquests if you can't understand the headiness of imperial conquest? Lean knew he had to make desert exploits intoxicating in Lawrence of Arabia. The Kordas knew that, too, in The Four Feathers. They comprehend the material so thoroughly they're able to satirize military tradition without defusing its power.

Graham Greene caught the two-edged quality of the Kordas' telling of this "ham-heroic" tale when he praised "the drive -- and in the Sudanese scenes, the conviction" of their version, saying "even the thickest of the ham -- the old veterans discussing the Crimea in the Feversham home, among the portraits of military ancestors -- goes smoothly down, savoured with humour and satire."

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