June 17, 2003 -- “The Four Feathers,” based on a 1901 novel by A.E.W. Mason (1865 - 1948), has been adapted to the screen six times (including older versions in 1915, 1921, 1929, 1939 and the 1977 made-for-TV version), but I had managed to miss all of them. Then one day I saw the 2002 version on the DVD rental rack at the local Albertson's store (where every Monday you can rent DVDs for a dollar). It is a whale of a story. After having seen this film, I'm anxious to see the best version of the film, made in 1939.
This is a lavish remake, directed by Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth”). It is a big, sweeping, epic story set in late 19th century England and in British-ruled Sudan, where British soldiers battle a bloodthirsty bunch of Islamic rebels. Unfortunately, the store did not have a single widescreen version of this DVD, and that really pinches a movie like this that is best suited for the big screen. The DVD transfer also seemed dark, and since the video setup I was watching, using component inputs, does not allow TV brightness adjustment, I had to suffer with that too. Despite those drawbacks, it is quite a yarn, unlike any I had seen before.
The story begins in 1875 during the height of the global British empire. Dashing army officer Harry Faversham (played by Heath Ledger of “A Knight's Tale,” is about to marry the lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”). He then learns his unit is about to be shipped out to the Sudan, where Muslim religious leader, Muhammad Ahmed, known as the Madhi, is leading the Sudanese Arabs in a revolt against British rule. British reinforcements are being sent to aid troops defending Khartoum. Harry decides he will resign his commission so he can marry Ethne and be with her, rather than go away to a remote country for perhaps several years. He realizes he does not want to be a career soldier like his father. Ethne and three of his friends misunderstand his motives and brand him a coward. Each of them send him a white feather, a sign of cowardice. Even his father turns against him. Only his best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley of “American Beauty”) stands by Harry.
When Harry finds out the war is going badly for the British in the Sudan, he decides to mount his own suicidal one-man rescue mission. Now spurned by Ethne, he sets out, against incredible odds, to rescue Jack and the squad he once commanded, including the three men who branded him with the white feathers. It is an incredible adventure, in which Harry is befriended, and repeatedly rescued from his own folly by a valiant and wise Muslim warrior, Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou of “Gladiator”).
This unique tale of heroic redemption, sacrifice and unlikely comrades-in-arms is fascinating. It is a decidedly offbeat romantic adventure drama. It makes sense only in terms of the British empire and the Victorian era in which it is set. The world that we live in now is pretty much alien to that world. That is not to say that young men no longer march off to war simply to impress girls. They still do that, and sillier things, but this particular story really belongs to another place and time. It reminds me a little bit of another historic story of heroic redemption, “Les Miserables.” One thing that does resemble the present day is the way the British soldiers were under constant threat of ambush from Sudanese guerilla fighters, and how hostile the general populace was to them. This is very much like the hostile environment in Iraq and the attacks against U.S. troops going on right now.
The film features the great cinematography of Robert Richardson (“Bringing Out the Dead” and “Snow Falling on Cedars”), the fine production design by Allan Cameron (“The Hollow Man”), and effective art direction by Keith Pain (“Black Hawk Down”). There are stunning desert vistas, contrasted to the lush greenery of England (filmed in Morocco and England). The prison sequences are as grim as anything I've seen since “Midnight Express.” The production values are high in this film, and the direction by Shekhar Kapur is effective as well. The script wanders back and forth a bit and some of the cuts were a little abrupt, but the story is strong enough to carry the day. The actors do a better job than one would expect, given the odd cast of very young American actors mixed with actors of various other ages and nationalities. Djimon Hounsou, especially, gives a very strong performance as the noble warrior. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy this movie (or the 1939 version) in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.