Among cinematic genres, old-fashioned period adventures aren’t exactly thick on the ground nowadays, and when they do appear, they tend to be pretty embarrassing: the recent remakes of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” are perfect cases in point. This handsomely-mounted new version of A.E.W. Mason’s famous old novel–previously turned into movies five times between 1915 and 1955 (in the last year it was rechristened, uninspiringly, as “Storm Over the Nile”) and made into a teleflick in 1979–is a more serious effort than the others mentioned above: it’s been adapted by Michael Schiffer and Hussein Amini, who aren’t exactly hacks, and directed by Shekhar Kapur, whose “Elizabeth” (1998) was widely praised for its elegance and ambition.
In the present case, however, “The Four Feathers” suffers precisely from the strengths Kapur showed in his earlier film–discretion, elegance, reticence and good manners. These are fine qualities, but they simply aren’t the ones most appropriate to this sort of Kiplingesque adventure. The plot is about what makes a man a hero. Young Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), the son of a British general, is a member of an elite corps of young officers who resigns his commission shortly after becoming engaged to lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson) and learning that his company is about to be shipped off to the Sudan, where the Mahdi has just defeated an English force. He’s disowned by his father and branded a coward, not only by his old comrades (including, he thinks, his best friend Durrance, played by Wes Bentley) but by Ethne as well–they send him the titular white plumes to signify his lack of courage. Harry responds by going off to the Sudan on his own and, disguised as a native, attempting to prove to his friends how wrong they are about him. The story cries out for some rip-roaring gusto and panache, but Kapur’s approach is resolutely serious, solemn and morose. The 1939 version was a rousing adrenaline-booster; in the style of its time it was basically an extravagant, simplistic exercise in chauvinism, but it was certainly exciting. This picture shuns all those characteristics–it’s dark, intense and brooding, more like a funeral than the corny, gung-ho story of redemption it was meant to be. Nor does it have the unabashed theatricality of another picture set against the same background–Basil Dearden’s “Khartoum” from 1966. That was hardly a great movie–no film that featured Charlton Heston’s strutting pomposity and affected accent as General Gordon could have been–but if it fell far short of being the second “Lawrence of Arabia” it aspired to become, it was at least clearly told, with a genuine hint of grandeur about it. It also boasted two deliciously hammy performances from Laurence Olivier as the Sudanese Mahdi and Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister Gladstone, which made it more hoot than horror.
Kapur’s effort, with its camels and deserts, recalls David Lean’s masterpiece too, but the comparisons are even less favorable to the newcomer. Where “Lawrence” was highly intelligent and perceptive as well as visually stunning and expansive, this “Feathers” remains, for all its pretensions to significance, strangely juvenile (despite the grimness of the closing reels) and oddly cramped and attenuated for a would-be epic. The motivations of the characters are never convincingly examined; they remain cardboard figures despite the misfortunes they must endure and the elaborate costumes they’re decked out in. And though the Moroccan locations have some splendid vista, Kapur doesn’t employ them especially well. His imperfect eye is revealed most notably in the film’s single big battle sequence. Tactically, it’s a rather fascinating engagement, but as Kapur lays it out it’s confused and murky. The strategy behind the Mahdi’s troop dispositions isn’t revealed until very late in the game; and though a couple of wide-angle shots of the British defensive formation against cavalry assault are impressive, they’re far too brief to register sufficiently, and are in any event immediately undermined by an excess of dust which obliterates our line of vision, and by a jumble of hand-to-hand combat shots which aren’t paced or arranged to form a coherent whole. (Kapur doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of montage.)
His cast, with a single exception, isn’t up to things, either. Ledger never fills his role; he seems small and weightless, without the necessary heroic dimension, and he proves stiff in his bright red officer’s jacket and nondescript when bearded and bedraggled in Arab garb. His lack of stature explains why most of the hero’s duties are passed to Djimon Hounsou as Abou Fatma, the black man who inexplicably becomes Harry’s protector and frequent savior. Hounsou has the presence that Ledger lacks; he dominates the screen like a modern Woody Strode whenever he appears, even if the character’s motives remain obscure. Bentley looks every inch the part of the stiff-upper-lip British officer–with his moustache and perfect bearing, he seems to be channeling Timothy Dalton–but his performance is wooden; and Hudson seems lost as Ethne. The real stars of the picture are costume designer Ruth Myers and production designer Allan Cameron, who have created a sumptuous backdrop for the action even if DP Robert Richardson often photographs it all in overly dark tones (presumably to complement the generally somber mood).
Ultimately what sinks this newest version of “The Four Feathers” is Kapur’s effort to impose a false sense of gravity on what’s actually a simple-minded adventure yarn. It’s an approach that saps the energy from the well-worn tale, and from its viewers too. Considering the harsh locations and demanding stunts, this must have been a difficult shoot, but the movie proves rough going for the audience as well.
Should you wish to compare Mason’s book, incidentally, you needn’t buy a copy: it’s available on line at www.blackmark.com/books33c/fourfeathers.htm.