In his role as Harry Feversham–the hero of Shekhar Kapur’s new filmization of A.E.W. Mason’s classic adventure novel “The Four Feathers,” about a British officer who has to prove his mettle after he’s branded a coward for resigning his commission just as his squadron is called up for duty in 1880s Sudan–Heath Ledger got to take advantage of his equestrian know-how by jumping onto a runaway horse in the middle of a battle sequence himself, instead of leaving the job to a stuntman. “They had five cameras running,” the Australian star recalled in a recent Dallas interview, “and they wouldn’t let me do it again. They didn’t know I was going to do it the first time. The producers didn’t really want me to do it for insurance reasons.” But Ledger quietly talked the matter over with Kapur before the shot, and the director said he could try the stunt if he wanted. “Thank God I held on for dear life,” Ledger said, smiling.
It wasn’t merely horses that he had to deal with during the four-month Moroccan leg of the shoot (some sections were filmed in England). “I grew to love my camel dearly,” Ledger remarked. “He was like a big, big mountain, and he was extremely tall and loving…and he walked around with a little smirk on his face. They’re very intelligent animals, in fact, as smart as horses or smarter. And because of that they would do nothing you say. So it was difficult at times.”
The difficulties went beyond recalcitrant camels, however. “We were constantly battling the elements,” the actor said. “We had flash floods and sandstorms and stuff like that, and we had to orchestrate our shooting around the weather. At one point Harry and [his friend] Trench, in their escape from [Omdurman] prison–the way they escaped [in the script] was by crossing a river full of crocodiles. Well, the river dried up. And so we had to make it up, shot by shot, in the desert, and put together that fight [scene] and [decide] how each person got away. It became more exciting, because it was hands-on and we had to just create it as we went along.”
That experience was repeated many times over. “When we were out there we didn’t have a script, necessarily,” Ledger continued. “Every night before each scene it’d be like Shakhur and I would sit in a room and we’d get, like, the ten different drafts of the scene that we’d have…and we’d cut and paste them all together into one scene, which would usually end up being longer. Then we’d go out and shoot it, and it was a lot of shooting from the hip.” At one point things had gotten so confused that Kapur told cinematographer Robert Richardson that he couldn’t provide him with the normal shot list, saying “We just have to go for it.” “So we did,” Ledger said, “and it was really exciting–it was just keeping on a roll, keep creating, keep piecing together the story….The whole thing was very tough, but very exciting for that reason. That keeps you feeling alive….I was thoroughly enjoying my ‘misery.’ I truly loved it, I really did. It’s quite humbling… [in the desert] everything’s insignificant, and the isolation, the slowness, focus you.”
The person who brought order to the potential chaos was Kapur, whose reputation attracted Ledger to the project and made all the work worthwhile. “I knew the movie had been made four times before, but I was aware of the kind of director Shekhar Kapur is. He’s incredibly passionate–to the point where it’s corny and you laugh at him, but you love him for it–but he’s also a spiritual man. I knew he was going to bring that into the story. I knew he was going to take it away from just the physical act of returning these feathers [the symbols of Harry’s cowardice] and was going to find something more–to get a subtext and get metaphoric.” And Kapur’s enthusiasm proved contagious. “He gets so excited about creating that you want to stand by him, you want to follow him, and you want to do good for him,” Ledger said. “He inspires you and makes you feel comfortable being around him. His movies are intense, but that doesn’t mean that he’s intense. He’s very thorough. And he’s very caring. He nurtures your performance.”
Ledger was also drawn to “The Four Feathers” by his fellow actors–Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, and Djimon Hounsou–and by the character of Feversham himself. “What makes this hero so interesting is that he had to put himself in a position of vulnerability first,” Ledger noted. “He had to climb out of a hole. Whenever you confront fear, or you put yourself in a position of vulnerability and you’re out of your element and you do it consciously in order to try to gain wisdom from it, that becomes a spiritual journey.”
And Heath Ledger clearly believes that illuminating that journey trumped all the difficulties involving in making “The Four Feathers.”