*The Four Feathers (PG-13)
Set in 1898, during Imperial England's hegemony heyday, The Four Feathers tells a tale of one man's personal quest for peace and marriage in the face of his country's orders to fight Sudanese Arabs in the name of the Queen's Empire.
If Britain's vain 19th-century attempts to control a sector of the Muslim world resonates with America's current push to tell the Middle East what time it is, then so too does Heath Ledger's character Harry Feversham inevitably reflect curiously on former American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh. Harry resigns his regiment's commission after announcing his engagement to Ethne (Kate Hudson) but finds himself unable to endure the humiliation of being disowned by his father and viewed a coward by his comrades and fiance, each of whom give him a white feather -- a symbol of his cowardice.
So Harry goes off alone to North Africa's treacherous Sudan in search of honor, pride and the company of British soldiers he trained beside, only to be swallowed up by a culture he can barely fathom. Director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth), along with co-screenwriters Michael Schiffer (Colors) and Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove), deftly pinpoints levels of fear and social pressure that induce people to make deluded decisions that only exacerbate the very problems they seek to avoid.
At the film's start Harry is an agile rugby player, respectful soldier and son of a famous military commander, with a bit too much common sense to abandon his future by going off to fight for England's expansion in a remote and unpredictable land. But even Harry's strong sense of individuality can't hold against the condescending glare of his betrothed love once she perceives him as a coward. It's here that the shaming rhetoric of humiliation constricts Harry like a giant slithering python. However Harry still retains enough insolence to suppose that he can redeem himself as a clueless WASP wandering in the middle of a desert filled with 40-story sand dunes and people who want to kill him merely because he speaks English.
An ill-fated association with a French pimp en route to the British regiment's camp in the Sudan leaves Harry on death's doorstep in the middle of an isolated desert where Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), a kind hearted slave, rescues him. Harry soon works as a nearly unrecognizable slave for the very regiment of British soldiers he trained with as he attempts to assist his onetime comrades with Abou's support.
"You English walk with too much pride on the earth," Abou tells Harry. It's a sentiment that resonates in the accurately brutal desert battle sequences that follow. When Harry sends Abou to warn his erstwhile regiment about an ambush that awaits them at a supposed British fortress, the Brits assume that the black man is telling a "tall tale" and set about whipping him for his efforts. The Sudanese attack that follows finds the relatively small troop of British soldiers fighting with false bravado on all sides from within a pitiful square formation that soon collapses in bloodshed.
As an individual interloper, Harry endures a journey into the belly of a beast that he doubtless would not have survived had he gone with his regiment. In pitting his divergent fears against one another, Harry comes to realize that fear is a constant element of the bargain in life. The subtle irony is that this revelation comes primarily to Harry's best friend and soldier Jack (Wes Bentley, American Beauty), and to Ethne who each carry scars as deep or deeper than the man who refused to fight for an imperialistic empire.
-- Cole Smithey
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown