U.S. Release Date: September 20, 2002
Distributor: Paramount
Writer: Hossein Amini
Composer: James Horner
Cast: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Michael Sheen
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (intense battle sequences, disturbing images, violence and some sensuality)

Muddled Feathers
by C.A. Wolski

Walking into a theatre to watch an epic adventure romance, one expects certain criteria to be met, namely that there's scope, action and a little pull on the heartstrings. The Four Feathers certainly tries, but it just can't quite deliver on any of these elements.

The movie's ostensible theme that redemption is possible by facing one's fears is admirable and universal, and that most of the action takes place in the desert realms of the Sudan makes it timely—you can't help but think of Afghanistan. It must have looked great on paper.

The individual elements are terrific. The story, which pits the British against a maniacal Muslim messiah, should resonate with most Americans. The photography is stunning. The acting is generally good with Wes Bentley as the standout. Even the music is notable. So why did all these great elements get muddled into a big fat bore?

The fundamental problem is the script by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini. The story starts out well enough with Lt. Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), Lt. Jack Durrance (Bentley) and their three friends enjoying easy duty in England with the Royal Cumbrians Regiment. All is well, the friends tease each other, play rugby and train endlessly for action. Then it is announced that the Cumbrians are being shipped out to the Sudan, and Harry—who we later learn never wanted to be in the army—resigns his commission. His friends are shocked and brand him a coward, delivering three feathers of cowardice to him. Jack is the only hold out, which from a narrative point of view is problematic, since that means Harry has nothing to prove to Jack. The fourth feather comes later from Harry's fiancée played by the ever-lovely Kate Hudson. The unit moves out, Harry feels guilty, follows them to Sudan hoping to redeem himself somehow.

It's when the action moves to Africa that the picture really nosedives. The action sequences either aren't necessary or don't work—particularly the big set piece battle—and Harry is continuously helped by a deus ex machina in the form of Djimon Hounsou, a native spirit guide, instead of having to rely on his own wits and cunning.

But the problem with The Four Feathers is more fundamental than a muddled plot. You just don't care about any of the characters because you have no idea what their motivations are. When Harry tells his fiancée—herself the daughter of a decorated military officer—that he has resigned she is upset, but Harry's reaction is muted as is hers. It's as if he's just told her he broke a favorite vase. In the earlier screen adaptations of the A.E.W. Mason novel, this was the motivation for Harry to go to Africa to redeem himself. He can bear being shunned by his comrades, but he can't bear to lose his future wife. In the current version, the motivation is more internal, more abstract, and thus less focused. Sort of the way the whole movie feels.

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