The opening of Shekhar Kapur's youthful but dark-tinged revision of "The Four Feathers" evokes the duke of Wellington's line attributing the victory at Waterloo to the battles "on the playing fields of Eton." In tightly shot cinéma vérité, hard lads in striped rugby shirts bash at one another until smart teamwork passing by two stars wins the day.
Watching breathlessly on the sidelines is Kate Hudson's impossibly adorable Ethne, beloved as it turns out, by both Heath Ledger's Harry Feversham and Wes Bentley's Jack Durrance, the starring teammates on the red-and-white team. Harry has handily outscored Jack in Ethne's heart, and her father announces their impending marriage that night at a regimental dance. The happy wedding does not come, however, for the boys are to ship out for the Sudan, and Harry elects to resign his commission, rather than risk his life.
This decision earns him four white feathers, signs of cowardice. Harry's erstwhile buddies, Durrance, Trench, Castleton and Willoughby, send him these cruel missives, and Ethne adds her own disapproval, as she has been raised to believe in the essential rightness of all things military. And, after a time of bitter regret in dark Dickensian London, Harry cannot stand himself, and embarks on a bizarre mission to prove his courage.
A.E.W. Mason's 1902 tale of the British fight against the forces of the Mahdi was filmed five times in the 20th century, most notably by the Hungarian émigré Zoltan Korda, who directed for his mogul brother Alexander in 1939. Then, of course, England was entering into World War II. It is more difficult to understand the motivation behind the new film, directed by the Indian-born Kapur, who so indelibly established himself with another tale of old England, "Elizabeth." While in some ways, this "Four Feathers" might seem more topical, as the white men in red tunics are fighting Muslim fanatics, there is little correspondence between the ridiculously old-fashioned and suicidal battles on the screen and the surgical air war over Afganistan.
Paramount publicity speaks of the current "passion for patriotism" as a selling point. In essence though, this rejuggling of Mason's novel clearly was designed as a costume party for its three young stars, rather than as a celebration of international imperialism. The Australian-born Ledger does well by the divided Harry, showing that athletic prowess does not always signify willingness to die in some faraway country, and looking disturbingly like Jesus of Nazareth as he goes undercover in the Sudan. Though less persuasive as an Englishman, the American Bentley brings a fierceness to Union Jack Jack. As for Hudson, she calls on her experience in "About Adam" to deliver a convincing enough English rose, who is addicted to piles of blond curls and silly little hats.
Yet the film draws its greatest strengths from the muscular Djimon Hounsou, so memorable in Steven Spielberg's undervalued "Amistad." Here he is cast in a role invented by screenwriters Hossein Amini and Michael Schiffer, a wandering desert nomad, who repeatedly saves poor Harry from his follies. With his face smeared with some white makeup, Hounsou's mysterious, all-powerful Abou Fatma might be a divine emissary, a sort of African deus ex machina.
But Hounsou cannot overcome the unwise diminishing of the role of Jack Durrance. Ralph Richardson, who made a sort of young Lear/Gloucester of the role in the Kordas' film, staggering blindly with John Clements' Harry as his Fool, lifted "The Four Feathers" onto a high dramatic heath. Nothing of the sort occurs here.
As photographed by Robert Richardson, Kapur's film paints England as an underlit, terribly stately place, and Africa (Morocco doubles as the Sudan) as sunbathed and bleakly beautiful, with expanses of wind-sculpted sands that recall master photographer Edward Weston's sensual Oceano dunes. The score by James Horner adds a sense of pomp and circumstance, and also insinuates spiritual notes. Overall, this "Four Feathers" feels lost in time - not a new take on an old theme, but a confused meditation on heroism and friendship. Yet, like "Black Hawk Down," it underlines the utter madness of military misadventures in cultures a world away from modern America or Victorian England.