"The Four Feathers" is old-fashioned moviemaking at its best.
I grew up on "Lawrence of Arabia," "Gunga Din," TV's "The Bengal Lancers," and a host of British colonial pix, all of which skirted the most important issue of the late 19th century-was Britain justified in its global colonization (one fourth of the globe in the late 19th century). Shekhar Kapur ("Bandit Queen," "Elizabeth") directs "The Four Feathers," a more honest than most treatment because its protagonis,t officer Harry Faversham (teen favorite Heath Ledger), wonders, as he contemplates resigning before the Royal Cumbrians are shipped to the Sudan to fight Muslims, why the Queen is fighting in the middle of the desert.
For this thought and his fear of death, he resigns his commission and loses his love, a disappointing Kate Hudson, and his three buddies, all officers ready to sacrifice like Christians vs. the Infidels in the latter's home court. Things don't go well for the Brits, as they didn't for the Yanks in Vietnam and arguably in Afghanistan. Although the terrain is a major factor in the loss, the damnable desert in "Four Feathers" is beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson, maybe besting the photography of "Lawrence." The sands undulate and curve like the waves in the opening sequence of "English Patient." They also hide hidden terrors like Arabs buried under the sand waiting to strike.
The battle where the Brits form a square against the overwhelming Arab hordes is one of the most remarkable I have ever seen. The shots of men herded together in prison are as claustrophobic as you could ever imagine. Complementing the visuals, James Horner's music is rich and foreboding like the desert itself (although too reminiscent at times of his "Titanic" score).
In the end, the unevenly-structured "Four Feathers" turns on the theme of friendship. Harry must prove he is not a coward by going to the Sudan (disguised as an Arab) trying to help his buddies. Although the love triangle with Kate Hudson is a trifle trite, the idea of fighting for the man next to you, also emphasized earlier this year in "We Were Soldiers," seems to me a new theme almost out of step with contemporary middle-east struggles emphasizing the primacy of country over individual.
It all reminds me of the bard's "plumed troops and big wars that make ambition virtue." "The Four Feathers" is old-fashioned moviemaking at its best.