Although it originates in a novel published a hundred years ago and has been translated to the cinema several times, most memorably in Zoltan Korda's brilliant 1939 adaptation, the new version of The Four Feathers seems surprisingly --- and, no doubt, accidentally --- apposite at this moment in the 21st century. A motion picture in the great tradition of colonial adventure (a tradition that includes such stirring works as Gunga Din, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Man Who Would Be King), The Four Feathers celebrates the superiority of British virtues at the Empire's peak of glory, the reign of Queen Victoria. Its story of exciting action, noble sacrifice, and military triumph in the Sudan constitutes one of the many versions of the great English epic of the Imperial past. Yet, this latest Feathers also suggests some important parallels with the present, when the world's new super power is threatening another imperialist incursion into a foreign land.
The movie's major action takes place in 1885, revolving around the Muslim uprising against the British that led to the famous siege of Khartoum, which was eventually lifted by Kitchener. The battles cost a great many lives, including that of the legendary General "Chinese" Gordon. Gordon, a typical English hero of the time, led his troops into battle armed only with a swagger stick, a Bible, and his spectacular self righteousness. When a regiment of cavalry, the Royal Cumbrians, is ordered to the Sudan, its most accomplished young officer, Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), suddenly informs his best friends and his fiancée, Ethne (Kate Hudson), that he accepted a commission only to satisfy his father, a general, and has no desire to go to war, no yearning for glory, nor even any interest in serving in the army. The confession and his resignation disgrace him in the eyes of his three closest friends in the regiment and his betrothed. Each of them sends him a white feather as a symbol of his cowardice and their contempt.
The movie never fully prepares the viewer for Harry's momentous confession. Nor does it prepare the viewer for his second momentous act: his precipitous decision to journey to North Africa to help his friends, now imperiled by the Sudanese rebels. But he somehow finds his way to the Sudan and, disguising himself as an Arab, treks across the desert in search of his comrades. For a brief time, he's pressed into service with the Muslim leader, known as the Mahdi. Along the way, he encounters danger and betrayal, but also finds a friend --- a brave, gentle, philosophical African warrior named Abou (Djimon Hounsou), who saves his life and accompanies him on his mission. That friendship not only helps him to survive, it ultimately enables him to prove to his friends and himself the real measure of his courage and loyalty.
In keeping with the film's literary and cinematic traditions, director Shekhar Kapur fills the screen with the visible and obvious objects, gestures, and emotions of Empire, filtered through the perpetual adolescence of the English aristocracy. He begins with the lads playing a violent game of rugby (reminding us of Wellington's assertion that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton), and proceeds to show the troops in training, galloping over fields with lances at the ready, swinging sabers, bayoneting dummies, parading in their splendid scarlet uniforms to rousing martial tunes. Before the regiment marches off to war, a smug chaplain delivers a blessing that thanks God for making them all English, and therefore more deserving and better equipped to rule the world than any other nation (sound familiar?).
To reflect the size and scope of his subjects, Kapur favors an overhead camera for a number of crowd scenes, among them a lovely view of another staple of the form, the military ball, where the officers form a square in which Ethne and Harry dance to celebrate their betrothal. That square foreshadows another, truly breathtaking shot of the fabled British battle formation, also square, from which the troops hold off the hordes of attacking Sudanese, who sweep down on all sides while the brave soldiers hold them off. The camera also frequently lingers over the green fields and gentle hills of England, with its grand houses and majestic public structures; then contrasts those views with sweeping panoramas of the desert, showing endless stretches of undulating sands with a tiny figure in the remote distance struggling across the arid, empty landscape.
In its attention to the amplitude of empire, the movie tends to neglect the personal and specific in favor of the grand and general, handling the movements of masses of people with grace and beauty, while maintaining a consistent stiffness and dullness in the performances. The actors display a lot of tight lips and noble profiles, without any other special conviction or presence. The characters talk about, rather than act out, their emotions, so that although everyone says Ethne is a magnet for all the young men, Kate Hudson actually seems remarkably pallid and vapid. Heath Ledger never seems more than a rigid, emotionless cipher, and only comes alive at all when he dons his Arab disguise --- at which point he looks disquietingly like another Western outcast, the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. That resemblance suggests again the peculiar relevance of an epic of a bygone era in this time and place, more than a hundred years and thousands of miles from the glories of a world where Britannia ruled the waves and the sun never set on the British Empire.