A classic story by British writer A.E.W. Mason (1865-1948) that had its first
film rendering in 1915, followed by others in 1921, 1929 (the silents loved
it), 1939, 1977 on TV, this year's version is updated for the modern
audience. The fact that it plays well on screens today is a testament to the
durability of a good story. This one, at once a love story and an
action-adventure drama, against a background of some military pomp and the
mysticism of the east, provides the attractions for a full engagement. Add
to that attractive actors and a tight screenplay and you have a contender for
your film-going affections.
Set in the late 19th century, when Great Britain ruled a quarter of the globe
and fighting for Queen and Country accrued to the honor and validation of
every army officer, an actual assignment in the Sudan comes a little too soon
for Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger). He only just started to plan his
marriage to the catch of the country, gorgeous and smart Ethne (Kate Hudson).
Perhaps because of those plans, perhaps because of sheer cowardice, Faversham
resigns his commission despite the dishonor it showers upon him. He does
this in the face of a demanding father, a general of the sternnest resolve in
military matters. But he's even more disgraced in the eyes of his closest
friends, one of whom, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), would be only too eager to
step into his shoes with regard to Ethne.
The reactions are predictable and swift. As a sign of their contempt for his
decision to abandon the regiment as he has done, they deliver a package to
him containing four white feathers, a sign of shame, from the members of his
closest circle, which includes Ethne herself. No one sees his side of the
The boys go off to the war against the "savages" while a correspondence ensues
between Jack and Ethne. Unaware of that, Faversham reaches the understanding
that he has, somehow, to face up to his demons and restore his good name. In
disguise, he makes his way to the Sudan and resolves to help his regiment and
his friends. Growing a beard, hidden under the caftan and tunic of the local
tribesmen, he hires a slave merchant to take him on a camel trip across the
dessert, to the main population center where he might learn of the plans of
the Mahdi, the enemy (think Hezbollah).
Having shown some kindness, he is spared from the vindictive killing of the
merchant and left with a camel to continue his journey. His water is soon
gone, he loses the strength to stay on his camel, he falls, close to
death, to the desert floor. At this nick of time, a fiercely stoic and
physically powerful native warrior, Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou in the
endearing role), rescues him. Because god put Faversham in Fatma's path, he
will protect him, he explains. Faversham will come to value greatly that
protection as the dangers he is facing catch up to him.
When he learns that the Mahdi have captured the important fort toward which
the regiment is marching, and that they plan a surprise attack that would
portend a total annihilation of British troops, Faversham sends Fatma to warn
the army. The notion that a tribal warrior, a species of human not held in
high regard, even one who speaks English, would be in a position to give them
useful intelligence, is not one that an English officer would accept.
Demonstrating the elitist self-important airs given to the British in
command, the commander chooses to interpret it as disinformation and orders
the torture punishment of this uppity tribesman. He then orders the army to
continue on its path to devastation.
What's in store for them and for the audience is something less than a
swashbuckling saga. Director Shekhar Kapur remains within the confines of
the closely watched human elements and keeps the story within behavioral
bounds. There's no grand sweep nor emphasis on landscape beauty (though
there's a great high angle shot of the British troops being virtually
consumed on four sides by the advancing horde). There's ferocity and
darkness, carnage and brutality on both sides. The battle choreography is an
unerring display of clever field tactics and a mostly realistic ebb and
flow of advantage-disadvantage.
The political background of the war would seem to be what's giving this story
its timelessness, resonating as it does in the political climate today and in
recent times. Its relevancy is manifested out without a lot of stretching of
the early 20th century origins of the novel on which it's based. Kapur has
delivered the power of a well constructed story, well understood in today's
political and emotional context.
Heath Ledger has a quality of determination and steadfastness that works well
for the role while Kate Hudson's natural beauty provides all the explanation
one might need for what motivates him. He does strong work as Harry,
facing his fear without making him a weakling and, in the course of his
trials, we sense a transformation of his character from that of a privileged
English soldier with a brittle backbone to an actual desert warrior. Man and
What is not so explainable in the story, however, is why he'd contemplate
resigning his commission in the first place, as important as his service is
to his betrothed. Further complicating the story line is the question about
why, if he was so certain of his choice, claiming that it was based on a
string of considerations, not just one, does he so quickly realize he has to
make amends. If the four feathers makes it so clear to him that his choice
was a blunder that would bring him nothing but shame, why not attempt to
reclaim his commission and join his comrades? It's not that it would so
readily be given to him, but we see no attempt. Instead he embarks on this
rash race to an unfocused goal.
But, of such rashness are fictional heroes made. And, if you forego any
further inquiry into such motivational questions, the movie has a lot to
If anyone "steals" the show, it's that old slave from Steven Spielberg's
Amistad, that fighter in "Gladiator", Djimon Hounsou. By the end of this
drama, you want more of his African warrior whose world is not so simple that
he doesn't understand the forces that move men and inspire bravery in their
quest for domination or justice.
~~ The Filmiliar Cineaste