When one considers the low pay, lack of personal amenities and hazardous working conditions, it's no wonder that a certain percentage of personnel leave the military. Yet, when they do so during or on the eve of battle or war, they risk being branded as cowards or traitors, regardless of whatever personal, social or religious objections they may or may not have to some certain military issue.
That's been a problem throughout the eons, and it was the basis for A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel, "The Four Feathers." Having previously been adapted into a visual medium several times (twice using the same name), the work now reappears on the silver screen in director Shekhar Kapur's hit and miss adaptation.
With the picture filmed on location in Morocco and England, Kapur ("Elizabeth," "Bandit Queen") and screenwriters Michael Schiffer ("The Peacemaker," "Crimson Tide") and Hossein Amini ("The Wings of the Dove," "Jude") tell the tale of a young British officer who resigns to avoid war but then changes his mind when he realizes he must save both his former comrades and his self-dignity.
If it weren't for the fact that the story is now a century old, one would imagine the lone man rescue angle to be a Hollywood construct featuring a bigger than life action hero riding in to save the day and suspend our disbelief regarding his antics while doing so. In fact, and despite the period setting and trappings, some of the latter is required to accept what's offered here.
It's a bit far-fetched to believe that just by growing out his beard and hair to the point of looking like a scruffy Brad Pitt that Heath Ledger's character could fool the locals into believing he's one of them (unlike the novel that naturally allows viewers' imaginations to make the disguise work). We're also supposed to buy into the notion that he could then manage to make his way to his friends in the Sudan desert and then save them when hundreds of other soldiers failed.
A bigger problem, however, is that regarding character motivation, particularly related to the protagonist. While we're told of the symbolic power and significance of the titular feathers (at the beginning of the film), clearly not enough weight is created for us to feel the protagonist's shame in receiving them. After all, would a character played by Arnie, Bruce or Sly had given a hoot about some plumage?
The explanation for Harry's decision to resign is rather weak, which also holds true for his sudden change of mind about the conflict and subsequent lone ranger behavior. In short, it's a bit difficult to buy into any of that. As a result, all of that material comes off as more contrived than naturally occurring or credible developments.
While the novel to film adaptation and passage of story-related time both add to the film's episodic and fragmented nature, viewers are also asked to buy into various far-fetched occurrences and developments. They include faked deaths, the steadfast loyal aid of a foreign stranger and a standard Hollywood fist-fight ending, complete with a head-butt tactic that I'm not sure was commonplace in the 19th century.
To top it off, the film's editing is quite rough (at least in the print offered to us that otherwise looked finished), and a bunch of non-Brits have been cast to play the key British parts (with few likely to fool most viewers).
That said, Kapur does manage to create and deliver some engaging and memorable scenes, and clearly benefits both from cinematographer Robert Richardson's ("Snow Falling on Cedars," "The Horse Whisperer") desert camerawork and composer James Horner ("Windtalkers," "A Beautiful Mind") decent score.
In addition, and despite the nationality and accent problem, there's also the charismatic cast and their decent to solid performances. Motivational and credibility problems aside, Heath Ledger ("Monster's Ball," "A Knight's Tale") is magnetic as the troubled protagonist who strives to redeem himself. I would have liked to have seen a more in-depth exploration of his internal conflict, but considering the film's other difficulties, I wasn't surprised by its absence.
Wes Bentley ("The Claim," "American Beauty") and Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous," "Dr. T & the Women") are decent as his best friend and fiancée respectively, but their budding romance and subsequent triangular dilemma isn't played out with as much conflicting emotions as it should have been, and they feel like actors playing the parts rather than the real thing. Michael Sheen ("Heartlands," "Wilde"), Kris Marshall ("Iris") and Rupert Penry-Jones ("Charlotte Gray," "Hilary and Jackie") fit their parts more believably than the others, but their characters are so limited in scope or development that they're barely distinguishable.
The most fascinating character to watch - notwithstanding more motivational problems - comes courtesy of Djimon Hounsou ("Gladiator," "Amistad") - who plays the solitary warrior and repeated savior of the protagonist. Despite the character's presence, behavior and actions not making much sense regarding all of that - his lone explanation for tagging along and risking his life is that he has no choice since God put Harry in his path - Hounsou is fascinating to watch, even if his character somewhat comes off as the old-fashioned black "slave" assisting his white "master."
Suffering from the novel to film curse where viewers sense that there's more to the story than they've been offered on the screen, the film works okay at times, but falters or is hampered by various problems at others.
An epic wannabe, "The Four Feathers" doesn't manage to achieve that vaulted status in either running length or executed material. Despite the intentions and efforts, it isn't the sweeping, intriguing and moving look at self-redemption, courage and sacrifice that it so desperately wants to be.
While watching the picture, one can almost imagine the filmmakers thinking they've hit this one out of the ballpark and are thus clearing their mantles for the upcoming movie award season. To quote Dana Carvey impersonating George W. Bush back on "Saturday Night Live, "Ain't gonna happen." The film rates as a 5 out of 10.