The Four Feathers

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Shekhar Kapur

Written by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini

With Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, and Michael Sheen.

The sun never sets on The Four Feathers: since its publication in 1902, A.E.W. Mason’s adventure novel, about a British officer who’s branded a coward and journeys to colonial Africa to rescue his self-esteem, has been filmed nine times. With its abundant action, spectacular desert locales, and emphasis on honor, valor, and redemption, the story’s a natural for the big screen, and the 1939 version, starring John Clements and Ralph Richardson, is widely regarded as a classic of the British cinema. Yet in the century since Mason’s book appeared, its imperialist backdrop has become a harder sell, and since the Vietnam war it has been adapted only one other time, for a British TV movie in the late 70s. The newest version was directed by Shekhar Kapur, a Bollywood veteran who made his English-language debut with the 1998 historical drama Elizabeth. Born in British India (his hometown, Lahore, is now part of Pakistan), Kapur brings a different perspective to the story–and while his film doesn’t measure up to the 1939 version, it does make a serious effort to reconcile Mason’s musty tale with the geopolitical realities of the 21st century.

Second-rate novels often make better movies than first-rate ones, and The Four Feathers is a good example: every filmed version I’ve seen takes great liberties with its rather convoluted story line, and more often than not they’re improvements. Yet the basic premise is timelessly romantic: Harry Feversham, scion of a military family, joins the army to please his hardened father, though like his late mother he’s a sensitive soul, ill equipped for the brutality of combat. During a dinner with some fellow officers he announces his engagement to the stunning Irish lass Ethne Eustace, dealing a terrible blow to his dear friend and romantic rival, Lieutenant Jack Durrance. The same evening Harry receives word that his regiment has been ordered to active service in the Sudan, where Muslim extremists have begun a jihad against their British and Egyptian occupiers. Terrified of battle, he resigns his commission, disgracing himself and his father. Three of his friends in the regiment send him white feathers–a symbol of cowardice–and when Ethne learns what he’s done, she adds a fourth, breaking off their engagement. Incapacitated by shame, Harry secretly sets off for the Sudan and disguises himself as a native, hoping somehow to redeem himself.

When Mason wrote The Four Feathers, the conflict in the Sudan was still fresh in the minds of his British readers; a hundred years later, as America ponders another jihad, the episode could hardly be more relevant. Like our current situation, it was complicated by morality, religion, politics, and economics, and it signaled the end of an era. Isma’il Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, hoped to industrialize the region with European capital, and in the late 1870s he installed General Charles George Gordon of England as governor of the Sudan. Gordon’s biggest challenge was abolishing the slave trade, which drove away Western financiers, but he buttressed his crusade with Christian rhetoric, repelling his Muslim subjects. The backlash swept into power a self-appointed Islamic savior, or mahdi, named Muhammad Ahmad, who united the region’s devout Muslims, slave traders, and nomadic Arabs. By 1885 the Mahdist revolutionary army had conquered the Sudan and killed Gordon during the capture of Khartoum. Twelve years later, French designs on North Africa compelled the British to act, and in September 1898 an army of 26,000, commanded by future war secretary Herbert Kitchener, crushed the Mahdist forces at their capital, Omdurman.

With the Sudan firmly under British rule, novelist Alfred Edward Woodley Mason arrived in the region to research his latest project, The Four Feathers. A graduate of Oxford and a seasoned actor, Mason had published quite a few historical novels but wanted to write a story grounded in his own time. Arriving by steamer at Sawakin, he traveled through the desert with half a dozen camels to Khartoum and Omdurman. In the fallen capital he saw the “house of stone” used by the Mahdists as a prison, which became the setting for the climax of his novel. But the book never addresses the international politics of the Sudanese conflict, and it doesn’t articulate the patriotic sentiment that would later infuse the story–presumably Mason thought the righteousness of the British cause was self-evident. His is a drama of personal honor, of responsibility to oneself and one’s fellow men. When Durrance tells Harry that he’d like to die on active service, Mason comments, “It was a quite simple creed, consistent with the simplicity of the man who uttered it. It amounted to no more than this: that to die decently was worth a good many years of life.”

That simplicity made the novel a hot property during the silent era: different sources have different counts, but according to Robert K. Klepper’s Silent Films, 1877-1996, adaptations of The Four Feathers were released in 1915, 1918, 1921, 1925, and 1929. The last of them was produced by David O. Selznick, who assigned the project to naturalist filmmakers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper (the team that four years later would make King Kong). That version, which I haven’t seen, was a great critical and commercial success at the time, but it’s since been eclipsed by the 1939 version, a lavish Technicolor epic produced by Alexander Korda.

Korda was a fascinating figure, a Hungarian Jew who helped rejuvenate the British cinema, and with his younger brothers, director Zoltan Korda and art director Vincent Korda, he produced a series of imperialist epics: Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (1937), The Drum (1938), Jungle Book (1942). As Hitler was annexing Austria and the Sudetenland and shipping tens of thousands of Jewish men off to concentration camps, the Korda brothers turned The Four Feathers into a celebration of the British empire, altering its timeline to accommodate a more patriotic ending. The main action of the novel begins in 1882, when Ahmad, by then known as Al Mahdi, was still gathering power, and ends six years later, with the British still locked out of the Sudan; the Kordas move it up to 1897, when Kitchener is preparing to recapture the Sudan, and ends with the British victory at Omdurman. “You were not born free, Harry, nor was I,” exclaims Ethne after she learns of Harry’s resignation. “We were born into a tradition, a code which we must obey.” By the end of the movie Harry has taken her words to heart: captured by the enemy, he launches a successful prison rebellion and raises a tattered Union Jack over the premises.

In the silent era The Four Feathers might have been good for a remake every few years, but since the demise of the British empire the story has disappeared for longer periods: in 1955 Zoltan Korda wrapped up his career with a CinemaScope version titled Storm Over the Nile, and in 1977 Beau Bridges played Harry Feversham in the version produced for British television. At a press conference during the Toronto International Film Festival, Kapur said he ignored all the previous film versions and returned to Mason’s novel for his adaptation. Judging from his attitude toward the source material, though, he may have felt he had to destroy The Four Feathers to save it. “How can anybody make a film about the British going and colonizing another country and not call into question the whole morality of it?” he asked. “I firmly believe that the root causes of terror that we’re facing today are built in the colonial history of this world. So, I knew that one of the things that I wanted to change about it was to make it anticolonial. The other thing was…all the other films took it upon themselves to say that not going to war was an act of cowardice. I kind of looked at it and said not going to war, in that situation, must be an act of great courage.”

Kapur’s version opens with a title announcing, “In 1884 over a quarter of the earth’s surface had been conquered by the British army.” Following that, abstract shapes reveal themselves to be bodies moving in slow motion during a rugby game, and as the action clicks into real time, Harry (Heath Ledger) and Durrance (Wes Bentley, the spooky kid in American Beauty) score the winning goal as tweedy upper-class Brits watch approvingly from the sidelines. In the officers’ mess, after the men receive their marching orders for the Sudan, a chaplain declares, “God has endowed the British race with a worldwide empire….Your victories over the heathen are the victories of the nobler soul in man.” Alone with his friend, Harry doesn’t buy it: “I often wonder what a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere has to do with Her Majesty the Queen.” Durrance replies, “I suppose I’m going because you’re going.”

This is all well and good, but if Harry is performing “an act of great courage” by resigning his commission, why does he change his mind and set off for a series of foolhardy missions in the Sudan? In Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini’s screenplay, the protagonist’s character is so muddled as to blur the motivation behind the subsequent action. Possibly because it doesn’t support Kapur’s vision, the screenwriters have dropped the opening chapter of Mason’s novel, “A Crimean Night” (beautifully dramatized in the 1939 version), and the omission is a fatal error. In that chapter Colonel Faversham hosts a dinner for his comrades from the Crimean war. Sitting at the table with the old codgers, young Harry is chilled by their stories: in one, a cavalryman who’s refused a dangerous assignment is so ashamed that he shoots himself, and in another, an army surgeon is so frightened by a stray bullet in the night that he creeps off to his quarters and severs a major artery. When the boy is sent off to bed, he lingers in a dark hallway, raising his candle to inspect the oil paintings of his military forebears. Mason characterizes them as strong yet “rather stupid” men, but their faults are lost on Harry: “He stood before them in the attitude of a criminal before his judges, reading his condemnation in their cold unchanging eyes.”

The film’s most significant invention is the friendship between Harry and Abou Fatma, a Sudanese mercenary played by the imposing Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator). Abou is a noble savage in the Hollywood tradition, serving to grease the plot, dispense wise aphorisms, and shake his head at the white man’s foolishness. When he and Harry discover that the British are heading into an ambush, Abou rides ahead to warn the Brits and is captured and whipped for his troubles (the sort of thing that happened to Tonto all the time). He’s apparently Muslim, though his spiritual discussions with Harry are purposely vague, soft-pedaling the friction between Christianity and Islam that ignited the Sudanese conflict. And though Abou admits that he’s killed many men, Kapur uses him to reproach the British for their cultural arrogance. When Harry resolves to rescue one of his friends from prison, Abou declares, “You English walk too proudly on the earth.”

As a cultural comeuppance, Kapur’s take on The Four Feathers is weirdly reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s 2001 film about the botched mission in Somalia that resulted in the body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. Like Black Hawk Down it opens with the mournful and ominous sound of Arabic singing, and its first action sequence–in which Durrance chases a Mahdist sniper through a Sudanese village, reluctantly fires on him, and is pelted with rocks by children–recalls the moral chaos of Scott’s film. At the end, when Durrance addresses a breathless audience back in England, his words echo the concluding sentiment offered by Josh Hartnett as one of the American soldiers. “It ceases to be an idea for which we fight, or a flag,” says Durrance. “Rather, we fight for the man on our left, and we fight for the man on our right.” Kapur has taken care to point out that his film wrapped long before the terror attacks last year, but more than one reviewer has noted the resemblance between the hairy, sun-beaten Ledger and John Walker Lindh, the American expatriate who fought with the Taliban. (The scene in which Feversham, pressed into service with Al Mahdi, takes part in a cavalry charge on the British must have cost the producers a few nights’ sleep.) With our blithe assumptions about nation building, we may soon find ourselves walking too proudly on the earth. Judging from Durrance’s closing soliloquy, one idea from Mason’s novel has survived intact: more than any government’s moral codes, nations are built on loyalty between people.