- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

"The Four Feathers" and the movies have found each other once again, with haphazard but sometimes diverting results. Although the source material was published in 1902, centennial fever remains in check: The original novel is exceptionally stilted.
The author, A.E.W. Mason, keeps forgetting where the action ought to be concentrated while celebrating the far-fetched redemption of Harry Feversham, a disgraced young British officer who subjects himself to an epic atonement by trailing his regiment to the Sudan in the early 1880s. As a consequence, the book has required considerable streamlining and repair.
If anything, the Technicolor edition of 1939, produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Zoltan Korda, transformed a garrulously plodding novel into a reliably ripping yarn about heroic masochism.
However, the new film, directed by Shekhar Kapur, is an instantly anachronistic period piece: a "Four Feathers" contrived to reconcile politically correct revisionism with imposing Moroccan locations and a three-pronged career buildup for young performers who don't seem ready to authenticate Victorian masquerades Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson and Wes Brantley.
Mr. Kapur is the transplanted Indian director who overdosed on texture and intrigue while scorning the Tudors in "Elizabeth." It's not a good sign when the movie begins by intercutting a kind of bare-knuckles rugby match with images of tea-sipping and embroidery.
This juxtaposition of rugged sport and genteel spectatorship is devised to introduce the principal characters, notably Mr. Ledger as Harry; Miss Hudson as his sweetheart, Ethne; and Mr. Brantley, Michael Sheen, Kris Marshall and Rupert Penry-Jones as Feversham's fellow officers in a regiment called the Royal Cumbrians, due to push off for Egypt soon after the regimental ball, which also confirms the engagement of Harry and Ethne.
You begin to wonder, however, whether the new version would be happier to retire Harry & Co. in order to exalt an African character: Djimon Hounsou of "Amistad" as a proudly defiant porter-spy-warrior named Abou Fatma, who ends up saving Mr. Ledger from calamity with cavalier frequency.
It's hard to deny that Mr. Hounsou is a more commanding physical presence. He also is entrusted with the revamped moral: The English must learn to "walk less proudly on the earth."
That's a moral full of hindsight, of course, and apologetic to a fault. But the storytelling emphasis certainly could welcome an Abou Fatma, if it were done systematically and without condescension to the supporting blokes in uniform.
Mr. Kapur and his colleagues haven't achieved a fresh balance or perspective; they merely scramble to cover all the discernible bases in fits and starts.
The 1939 version made a far more plausible case for Harry's own resourcefulness and tenacity in the person of John Clements. Having alienated both his friends and his fiancee by resigning his commission on the eve of the Sudan expedition, Harry spends years in disguise as a native menial, struggling to be a lifesaver to the comrades who were given cause to doubt his honor and bravery.
White feathers, symbols of cowardice, are left as a spur to Harry's heroic reversal. He keeps those tokens with him, determined to return them to the people he induced to misjudge him.
It certainly was easier to imagine Mr. Clements passing as a wily penitent while venturing into harm's way. His Harry stained his skin, had his forehead branded and pretended to be a pathetic mute. By definition, his actions had to speak louder than words. Now it's a little puzzling to find Mr. Ledger and Mr. Hounsou conspiring in English but failing to attract much comment amid hordes of Arab-speaking laborers in the train of the British army.
Mr. Ledger might pass as Leonardo DiCaprio's kid brother during the early courtship scenes, but you can't figure out how he lasts a day in the desert even when shown slicing a camel's hide to suck its blood. At that point, one would welcome a talking camel, with a line like, "Forget it, dude, I'm not into a Dracula scene."

TITLE: "The Four Feathers"
RATING: PG-13 (Episodes of graphic violence in a war-torn historical setting; allusions to torture and racism)
CREDITS: Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Screenplay by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason.
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

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