Review: The Four Feathers

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )

This may be the fourth or fifth adaptation of the famed novel., The Four Feathers, by A.E.W. Mason, however, if this version of the film does justice to the novel, that so many other critics have implied, then that leads me to wonder if the novel deserved to be adapted in the first place!

The Four Feathers has been sitting in a vault at Miramax for quite some time. The reason for this may vary from person to person. One might conclude that Miramax wanted to wait until the box office clout of the movie’s main stars had risen some. The more logical reason though, is that Miramax rightfully had no confidence in such a lackluster piece of cinema.

The plot of The Four Feathers is quite confusing; at least this version makes it so. The story follows three characters, Harry, Ethne, and Jack, in 1884 England. Ethne is engaged to be married to Harry, who along with Jack is a member of the British Army. Shortly after the engagement between Ethne and Harry is announced, a British fortress in The Sudan is attacked by natives. Harry and Jack’s regimen is one of the regimens chosen to go to The Sudan and reclaim that fortress. While Jack is the model soldier, Harry, who only intended to stay in the army for a year to please his father, is petrified of going to war. After a night of deep thought, Harry concludes that his life his more important than his duty to his country. He resigns his post in the military.

Such an act is cause for tremendous shame. Harry is branded a coward by everyone. In 1884 England, such an act of coward-ness is greeted by the sending of a feather, the symbol of a coward. Harry receives four feathers. Three from his friends, and one from Ethne. (Interestingly enough, Harry does not receive a feather from Jack, and that is never taken issue with in the film).

Not willing to accept such a great insult (which he knew was coming), he travels to The Sudan to return the feathers to their givers.

There is nothing wrong with this classic story. However, its the way that the film makers of this adaptation chose to string the events together, and what they left and didn’t leave on the cutting room floor. The poor structure of the film leaves you trying to figure out what is going on, rather than just absorbing the story and scenery, like it should have been. The Four Feathers feels like a 6 hour epic when in reality it was only 2 and a half hours, still a lengthy running time, especially for a film which is aimed at teens. (Of the four films debuting on the weekend of 9/20/02, this is the only non-R rated film entering the theater, but that is another rant).

As I previously mentioned, the structure of the plot of The Four Feathers is hideously awful. The final hour of the film, which covers Harry’s quest to return the feathers, jumps back and forth between flash backs, a very poor idea, especially for a period film. The Four Feathers uses too many plot devices to count, and they are extremely cliched and old. The movie also manages to lose sight of the three main characters. They even introduce a character that, to this day, I have no idea why he was written into the film. That character is of a black slave, Abou Fatma, a confidante and protector I suppose, of Harry’s.

The Four Feathers has been advertised and promoted under the thought that this film would be mainly about a love triangle between Ethne, Jack, and Harry. While this does exist in the movie, it is only one of the various plot devices in us. The ending of The Four Feathers doesn't work, because it ends, focused at that particular time, on this plot device. And since we have been given very little set-up of this love triangle, we are not emotionally invested it in, and thus, don’t give a damn!

You have to give The Four Feathers a little credit, it did try to develop its characters. Unfortunately, they did not succeed. They tried to mature the character of Harry from a naive boy to a wise man. However, the gave us no reason to believe such a transformation occurred, or should occur. One minute, Harry is quitting the army, fully aware that he will receive the feathers of cowardice, and when those feathers arrive, he jumps on a boat over to The Sudan and risks his life to return these feathers. It just doesn’t make sense.

The acting is simply OK. Heath Ledger, who is becoming a mild sex symbol and the latest import from Australia, plays the emotional and fickle Harry very coldly. Kate Hudson has so little screen time that there is no time for her to make any real mistakes with the character of Ethne. If I had choose a stand-out, from the three “main” characters, it would be Wes Bentley, and his portrayal of Jack. While he is far from inspired, he does have talent.

The majority of the film takes place in The Sudan and the deserts of Africa. This gives the director, Shekhar Kapur (who directed the Oscar winning motion picture, Elizabeth), some opportunities to break up this tedious movie with some beautiful landscaping. I am pleased to say he took advantage of this. There are some truly beautiful shots of the desert and rock formations. It is sad to say that this is the lone true positive thing about this film.

There are numerous battle sequences in The Four Feathers, and I found them boring, shot from the wrong angles, and unfazing. Maybe I am just another desensatized member of the Millennial Generation, but Shekhar is going to have to do a bit more to impress this critic.

I saw The Four Feathers with two close friends. One of these friends, Scott, was quoted at the theater as saying “Jake, I will never forgive you for making me see this.” And frankly, I don’t blame him!

© 2002 Jake Sproul

Main Archive