Lord Methuen & the British Army: Failure & Redemption in South Africa

. "The Four Feathers"

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 issue.

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 destiny meet.

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 offer.

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  

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