The Four Feathers is full of sand. That's putting it mildly. So let's just say it's one of those What-Have-We-Become movies where American actors feign bad accents to play British colonialists. Gung-ho and looking to pick a fight with the faceless inhabitants of a far-off nation, these soldiers unwittingly draw one more shadow over the Empire On Which The Sun Never Sets. Sand stretches as far as the camera can see. Camels clomp-clomp their unsteady way down dunes; while off in the distance, in a swirl of dust and pretension, rides a dreamboat on horseback, sword drawn, face twisted up into the sort of photogenic snarl of rage you see in an Oscar highlight reel. If every generation deserves a sandy epic, Four Feathers is the Titanic generation's best bet.
Which is rather disappointing. Audiences deserve much better than this shallow, albeit handsome, attempt at getting critics to shout “Sweeping!” David Lean is the filmmaker most often cited as an influence when a lot of sand blows through a movie. He made Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, which, on second thought, had a lot of snow. Like it matters.
Four Feathers closely follows the Lean tradition, and smartly, director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) makes use of some of the brightest young Hollywood lights. There is lots of potential here: Heath Ledger (The Patriot) plays Lt. Harry Faversham. His fianc e, Ethne Eustace, is played by Kate Hudson (Almost Famous). Rounding out this romantic triangle waiting to happen is Wes Bentley from American Beauty as Lt. Jack Durrance, Harry's best friend.
The details, as far as I could follow, are as such: The year is 1875. Harry and Jack are British soldiers. They are called into their swanky London barracks. Speeches are made. It's a proud day, the commander announces, you are all being shipped to the Sudan to put down an anti-Colonialist revolt. Harry kind of gulps. He realizes that, yes, he's in the army but he never intended to fight.
He resigns and is promptly disowned by his father, his friends, and Ethne. But wait: Why did he quit? Hard to say when politics are shunned for soulful glances into the horizon.
“All I care about is us!” Harry moans to Ethne, and that's a pretty good motto for the entire film. This is the sixth adaptation of A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel and it's so square and backwards I wouldn't be surprised if Kapur worked from a 1902 screenplay. No attempt is made to understand the Sudanese. War is treated with all the romance of soap opera. Upon hearing of Harry's chickening out, three of his friends and Ethne mail him four feathers to symbolize cowardice.
Harry is shamed and decides to prove himself. He journeys to the Sudan and passes out in the desert. That's when the West African actor Djimon Hounsou (Armistad) rescues Harry and helps him penetrate the rebels.
Harry rides into battle against the British with the aim, of course, of reversing his position at the last moment and helping the British win the fight.
The Brits form themselves into a box, and, in one jaw-dropping shot from above the desert, Kapur sends in hundreds of men to attack.
These are not digitally-animated soldiers but real extras, and the difference is stunning. That is until Harry spots Jack and, with hooves stampeding and chins jutting, they exchange a thoughtful glance, and you leave feeling overly practical: Who can see anything with all that dust?