Who but a featherbrain would journey thousands of miles from England to the Sudan, cross an oceanic desert alone, fight handto- hand with fierce indigenous warriors, and, in order to rescue a captured comrade, deliberately get himself confined to a prison from which hell would be relief? "All this way for a feather?" asks Trench (Sheen), one of four fickle friends Harry Faversham (Ledger) risks his life again and again to save.
When he resigned an officer's commission in Her Majesty's army rather than be dispatched to fight in a remote corner of the British empire, Harry was handed four feathers, three from his buddies and one from his fiancée. Each was a white badge of cowardice, and it is to relieve himself of the weight of the feathers that Harry undertakes his improbable solo mission. Adapted from a 1901 novel by A.E.W. Mason, The Four Feathers is a spectacular epic of violent adventure and personal redemption.
When told that "an army of Mohammedan fanatics" has slaughtered an entire British garrison in the Sudan, Harry's comrades prepare for battle. Though his father is a distinguished colonel, Harry balks. "I never wanted to join the army," he tells Ethne Eustace, the woman he plans to marry. "I did it for my father." Ethne's own father died heroically in battle, and when Harry proclaims his pacifism, she sends him a white feather in lieu of a wedding ring.
While her mother, Goldie Hawn, was playing a groupie in The Banger Sisters, Kate Hudson, most famous as groupie Penny Lane in Almost Famous, transformed herself into a classier camp follower in The Four Feathers. Her genteel Ethne is the Muse of an entire British regiment, though only two, Jack Durrance (Bentley) and Harry Faversham, dare declare their love. Though Jack and Harry are rivals for Ethne's lovely hand, it is male camaraderie more than conjugal desire drives the plot of The Four Feathers. Once in Africa, Harry bonds with another man, a dark-skinned Muslim named Abou Fatma (Hounsou), who saves his life several times. A fleeting reference to the fact that he comes from a tribe enslaved by the Sudanese rulers might explain his sympathy for Britain, but Abou Fatma can offer no other reason for repeatedly risking his life to aid helpless Harry except that: "God put you in my way."
By glorifying the exploits of a man who repudiates his own refusal to take up arms in patriotic service, The Four Feathers is an anti-anti-war film. "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country," wrote E.M. Forster, but the script to this film denies the distinction; when Harry deserts his duty to the Crown, he also lets his buddies down. But the screenplay celebrates as well the triumph of a sensitive new breed of man one who admits his fears and failings and then confronts and overcomes them. Yet fears are not always failings, particularly when they put a brake on hasty acts of violence. Though the film suggests otherwise, aversion to war is not always a pathology.
I saw The Four Feathers on September 10, 2002, and it was impossible not to think of what had happened almost exactly one year earlier and what was still happening in Afghanistan. The story of Western troops sent to alien terrain to avenge atrocities committed by Muslim zealots (in the Sudan they were called Mahdi, not Al Quaeda) suggests that even after the sun has set on the British empire there is nothing much new under that sun. It is just easier to exult in ancient battles fought in long-shot than to approve brutal actions currently occurring off-camera in the name of national honor.