The Four Feathers is a good old fashioned adventure movie with, according to one viewer, not enough adventure and too many people standin’ around talking.
The Four Feathers is based on a 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason. It has been made into 7 movies so far, the first one being filmed in 1915. The best-known, and reputedly best, version is the 1939 Technicolor epic.
The title refers to a symbol, long since forgotten. A white feather is a sign of cowardice.
Gunga Din from the same year, featuring Cary Grant as a British soldier in India
Beau Geste, also from 1939, about French soldiers and a colonial desert fortresss.
Our hero (Heath Ledger) is a British army officer, like his father and grandfather. He has no interest in the military, but joins to appease his family. He figures he’ll ride out his term of service, retire young, and allow his own son not to join the army.
But war breaks out in the Sudan before Harry is retired. He quickly decides to resign his commission, and his three closest friends give him white feathers before shipping out, although his friend Jack (Wes Bentley) still believes in him. Harry’s own fiancé Ethne (Kate Hudson) gives him the fourth feather.
Harry gets to explain his decision, and it sounds plausible. He never wanted to join the military in the first place. It is not his nature to be a soldier. He was only doing it to appease his father and his family. It was a lie to have even joined in the first place.
And yet, peer pressure being very effective, Harry decides he really is a coward, and sets off for the Sudan in hopes of somehow making it up to his friends. He carries the feathers with him as a reminder of his new purpose in life.
In the 2002 telling of The Four Feathers, as in the others, there is a subplot about love. Although the love story ostensibly drives the action, it really is a minor story, relegated to the bookending beginning and end.
The Four Feathers is in the same vein as Gunga Din and Beau Geste. These films take place in a European colonial setting and feature upper-crust protagonists looking for adventure in darkest Africa or the exotic East.
A remake in 2002 could have opened up new storytelling opportunities. More time has passed since the events in the movie than ever before. We could have seen a new adventure movie that included some social commentary or a statement about imperialism. Alas, The Four Feathers doesn’t go that route. If any commentary sneaks in, it’s only a line of dialogue here, a scene there.
Forsaking politics, the adventure aspect becomes prominent. The adventure is not too bad — the heat, sun, and dust of the desert is captured beautifully by cinematographer Robert Richardson. But all in all, it could have been more rousing. For example, there is a stirring high-angle shot of a surrounded army, being swarmed on all quarters by raiding horsemen. The fact that only one shot stands out, begging for another to join it, is something of a disappointment.
The final scenes back home are protracted and unnecessary, particularly in an adventure story. The ending of the film spends far too much time in closeup on Wes Bentley and Heath Ledger — “too much standin’ around talking.” Ledger and Bentley give good performances. Ledger has a good pensive, emotive face. Bentley is more angry and broody. They are good choices for this director who likes to stay close to the face. I just didn’t necessarily want to memorize the angles of Bentley’s crooked teeth.
Maybe the lingering ending was intentional, and director Shekhar Kapur was more interested in the drama than the adventure. But without a new social commentary, it’s hard to care about British military elites of 120 years ago.