"The Four Feathers" is an anomaly: a rousing war epic that tries to lend modern sensibility and multiculturalism to a British tale from a more chauvinistic era.
Strangely, it almost reaches that schizophrenic goal. "The Four Feathers," based on the famous and oft-filmed novel by A.E.W. Mason, has been spectacularly filmed by Indian-born director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth," "Bandit Queen"). The film tries to do two fundamentally opposite things: stir our spirits with an old-fashioned tale of romantic self-sacrifice and the rites of manhood, and critique the evils of colonialism of the very British imperialists and militarists who are the film's heroes and heroines.
Kapur doesn't fully succeed. But there are marvelous things in this movie -- a great "last stand" battle scene, lush views of Moroccan desert dunes stretching out like great golden waves, and a savage, bleak sequence set in a Sudanese desert prison. The last two-thirds of "The Four Feathers" are visually stunning in ways few modern films achieve. (The first third or so seems stodgy and contrived by comparison.)
Mason published "The Four Feathers" in 1902, and reading it even today, you can see why it's such perfect movie material. It's a grandly exciting tale that opens in the mansions and ballrooms of old Imperial Britain and then shifts to the infernal heat and peril of the Sudanese desert. The story resonates with thrills, romance and Anglophile spirit.
Kapur's movie adds something new. It's grimmer, more historically critical. But, as before, we get the lusty tale of an apparent misfit from a military family, Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), his fall from grace and his furious pursuit of redemption. Handsome, troubled Harry resigns his commission in 1884, shortly after his engagement to Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson), and right before his four friends are due to ship off for the Sudanese War.
He has qualms about both the war and himself, but three of his chums -- Trench (Michael Sheen), Castleton (Kirk Marshall) and Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones) -- send him white feathers, symbol of cowardice. So does Ethne. The fourth, Harry's closest pal, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), withholds judgment.
The insult stings Harry, who travels to Sudan disguised as a native and there witnesses the overwhelming defeat by Sudanese insurgents of the British company containing his friends. He tries to rescue them, while Jack -- blinded in the rout and ignorant of his rescuer's identity -- returns to England and Ethne. The ending of "The Four Feathers" is supremely romantic, which is why it has always pleased audiences more than critics.
Filmed six times previously, most recently for British TV, "The Four Feathers" is close to the quintessential British colonial adventure. But one of the reasons it has survived so long -- and why the 1939 Alexander Korda version is still regarded as one of the all-time great adventure movies -- is because the story depends more on individual emotions like love, friendship and selflessness than on any national myth-making or imperial spirit.
Director Kapur is a filmmaker with a real flair for epic landscapes and adventure, and this is a better film than his earlier English-language movie, the overpraised "Elizabeth." There, the style seemed to often clash with the material; it was too frenetic, self-conscious and fractured. But here, as soon as Kapur gets his young cast and thousands of extras out into the desert, there is an exhilarating sweep and scope, especially in the Sudanese prison camp, a "Spartacus"-like hell of toiling prisoners and sadistic guards.
It's also in the second half of the movie that its real hero emerges: Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), the samurai-like soldier who finds Harry lost in the desert and becomes his sidekick/mentor. Playing a mysterious, supremely confident warrior, Hounsou is an actor of towering presence. Though Ledger, a hunk of the day, gives a sometimes touching performance, he can't match charisma with Hounsou -- especially since Ledger has been decked out in a beard and stringy hair that lend him an unfortunate, unintended resemblance to John Walker, the American Taliban.
Bentley, playing the part that Ralph Richardson immortalized in the '39 version, is moving, too. His soft, intense face bristles with righteous anger. But though I loved Hudson in "Almost Famous," she's no blooming English rose. This headstrong part cries out for Kate Beckinsale or the younger Cate Blanchett (whom Kapur directed to an Oscar nomination in "Elizabeth"). It was easier to celebrate the British Empire and the Sudanese campaign in 1939. Questioning the rationale for empire, Kapur and company have made a less integrated, less satisfying movie than the old "Four Feathers" that movie buffs love. But, at its best, this new film does mix grandeur with skepticism, excitement with reflection. In the end, like Harry, it redeems itself.
3 stars (our of 4)
"The Four Feathers" Directed by Shekhar Kapur; written by Michael Schiffer, Hossein Amini, based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason; photographed by Robert Richardson; edited by Steven Rosenbloom; production designed by Allan Cameron; music by James Horner; produced by Stanley R. Jaffe, Robert D. Jaffe, Marty Katz, Paul Feldsher. A Paramount (and Miramax International) release; opens Friday, Sept. 20. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence).
Harry Feversham -- Heath Ledger
Jack Durrance -- Wes Bentley
Ethne Eustace -- Kate Hudson
Abou Fatma -- Djimon Hounsou Trench -- Michael Sheen
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.