The Four Feathers
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Written by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini
Starring Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou


The Four Feathers

What were they thinking? That a racist novel, filmed many times over the years, could be remade again and be politically correct this time? That the gratuitous insertion of a heroic, self-sacrificing black man (Djimon Hounsou) who helps the white hero find his courage - shades of "The Green Mile" - would transform this hoary old pot-boiler into a valid statement for our time?

"The Four Feathers," in case you've been out of touch for the past 90 years, is the story of Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), handsome young officer in Queen Victoria's army in 1875, son of a general and engaged to the lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson). He and his three mates are ordered off to the Sudan to help General Gordon deal with the savages, at which point Harry suddenly realizes that being in the army means you might have to fight and even die. Belatedly but logically he resigns his commission, thereby incurring the enmity of both friends and fiancée, who each send him a white feather signifying cowardice.

All right, it's a premise, though it takes the film half an hour just to get to it. And if the film had ended there we might have had a provocative piece about life, honor, misplaced bravery, and the overarching evil of empire. But no; now Harry must redeem himself by setting sail for the Sudan, disguising himself (badly) as a quote-native-unquote, trekking across the Saharan wastes until, near death, he's rescued (for no reason) by Abou (Hounsou), who thereafter devotes himself to getting Harry out of trouble, also for no reason. The film cuts back and forth between Harry and the British regiment, now commanded by his friend, who due to stupid rigidity of battle style, is now leading his troops to slaughter by the Mahdi and his native troops.

How will it end? Will brave Harry find a way to rescue his friends, or at least two of them? Will Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), who was not only Harry's closest friend but was also silently in love with Ethne and jealous of Harry, and who has now been blinded in the battle but is rescued by Harry and Abou, come home as a hero to marry Ethne? Or will Harry arrive just in time to - oh, never mind. It's not worth talking about.

Shekhar Kapur, the Indian director of this film, who made the remarkably powerful and elegant "Elizabeth" in 1998, has said that his new version is without the racism that burdened the five earlier versions. I respectfully disagree. Had he or his writers given the action some kind of context, beyond one line that questions why the British feel they need to control someone else's country, it might have been possible to make a film for grownups, and not for the audience that used to lap up John Wayne westerns. The film does make one valuable point, however, for military strategists: It's not the best idea to form a defensive square when you're attacked in the middle of the desert. It will lead to death and blindness. Remember that.