In the 1998 Best Picture Oscar contender “Elizabeth,” director Shekhar Kapur rejected the confines of the epic filmmaking rulebook. He infused the period drama with a modern edginess that piqued even the most ignorant of historians. The film was vast and sprawling in time period and political upheaval, tight and focused in narrative flow and character metamorphosis.
In a desperate attempt to once again bask in Oscar’s radiant glow, Kapur’s latest film returns to that rulebook and doesn’t deviate from the standard elements of the golden boy’s favorite genre. “The Four Feathers,” starring Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley and Kate Hudson, is about as epic and historical as today’s ultra-preachy Hollywood didacticism gets. Instead of giving us the rich cinematic flair and heart-pumping storytelling that “Elizabeth” possessed, Kapur throws together a greatest hits anthology of epic cliches: the love triangle, the pounding African-chanting score (courtesy of Oscar favorite James Horner), the protagonist’s journey from perfect happiness to miserable starvation, and the slow-motion stylization that turns a tense battle into a tediously orchestrated dance routine.
Despite all this sound and fury, the story fails to emotionally involve the audience in its outcome. Based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason, the film centers around a committed soldier named Harry (Heath Ledger), a member of a young, athletic regiment of the British Army at the end of the 19th century. On the surface, Harry’s life is euphoric: he is engaged to a beautiful upper-class Englishwoman named Ethne (Kate Hudson), and he spends his days training and playing rugby with his closest mates, particularly his best friend Jack (Wes Bentley).
But his jovial existence is shattered by the announcement that he and his fellow soldiers have been ordered to put down a rebellion in British-controlled Sudan. Upon hearing this news, Harry no longer wishes to pledge his life to his country. He insists that his decision to enter the army was only a temporary means to appease his jingoistic General father. He also begins to doubt the morality of his nation’s imperialistic aims, perceptively asking Jack “what a desert in the middle of nowhere has to do with the Queen?”
After resigning his commission and leaving the army, Harry receives a condemnation from three of his closest friends and his beloved Ethne: four white feathers, symbols of Harry’s cowardice and betrayal of his fellow soldiers. Unable to bear the legacy of cowardice he must now accept as his own, he goes to Africa with the feathers in hand, determined to find and protect his friends, overcome his fears and prove himself to those he disappointed.
As any attentive reader can already detect, the film is not subtle about its central theme of morally ambiguous imperialistic aims. Yet even as it flogs us with unsympathetic British sound bites like “God has endowed the British race with a worldwide empire” and “we possess the nobler soul in man,” it paradoxically attempts to endow its characters with moral restraint. In one throwaway sequence, Jack and his men hunt a dangerous African sniper through a massive enemy fort. When they finally face their enemy, the film takes great, tedious care to underline that Jack did not shoot his opponent until such drastic actions were absolutely necessary. By refusing to display the dehumanization of the African natives, “The Four Feathers” excessively humanizes the British and whitewashes their brutal colonial imperatives.
The film has more success with its examination of cultural universalities and differences. Harry’s emerging friendship with a English-speaking native named Abu (Djimon Hounsou) touchingly displays humorous contrasts–the sound of laughter and the duration of prayer–even as it mines for common traits all humans can potentially reveal.
In one of the film’s most visually stunning displays of incongruous cultural practices, the British stand in strict geometrical formation as their native enemies surround and demolish them by employing “dishonorable” tactics like skulking and ambush. This battle, with its stunning desert vistas and disorienting upturned dust, is one of the few times the film makes a cogent historical point without being preachy.
The actors generally fair well in a story that strains under the weight of its weak and meandering narrative. Ledger delivers a fine portrayal of a man driven yet uncertain about actions. His performance really comes alive in his scenes with Hounsou, who does a fine job essentially creating a variation on the same character he plays in every Hollywood film in need of a sympathetic African native (see “Gladiator” and “Amistad”). Ledger has far less chemistry with Bentley, an enjoyably quirky actor who plays Jack with too much refined detachment. Kate Hudson brings very little to the film; her role is slight, and it seems less like a passionate choice and more like an overt rebellion against the Goldie Hawn’s-bubbly-daughter niche “Almost Famous” created for her.
But fine performances and occasional glimpses of visual deftness cannot save “The Four Feathers” from the final ambiguity of its intentions. What, exactly, should the audience learn from Harry’s adventures? On the one hand, he defies imperialistic ideals. At the same time, the four feathers reverse his decision not to fight, teaching him the value of courage and loyalty to his friends. The film never entertains the possibility that Harry’s deviation from the norm is brave in its own right.
Furthermore, it goes to great lengths to show the horror and treachery of colonial warfare, but its hero’s growth and final redemption arises from his participation in this immorality. By tripping on this tricky contradiction, “The Four Feathers” may unintentionally be the only pro-war film to come along in quite some time.