If generals are always fighting the last war, movie directors are always fighting the one before that, or the one before that. With The Four Feathers, we're back in the Sudan just as the sun is about to start setting on the British Empire. And we've been here so many times before, including six previous versions of The Four Feathers, not to mention Khartoum, that you'd think those enigmatic sand dunes had no further secrets to reveal. You might be right, but nobody's told director Shekhar Kapur, who seems to feel he's reconstructed A.E.W. Mason's colonial-era novel for our postcolonial moment in time. Although Kapur did cause us to reconsider England's Virgin Queen in 1998's Elizabeth, he's neither reconstructed nor deconstructed this late-Victorian adventure story, just clumsily tinkered with it a bit. What was always a paean to England's stiff upper lip is now a confused paean to England's stiff upper lip.
The movie starts strong enough, Kapur knowing how to activate a large canvas. He's not into the camel-crossing-the-desert pace that David Lean brought to Lawrence of Arabia. And the early scenes, set in England, aren't smothered in pomp and circumstance, although they're lovely to look at. Heath Ledger's Harry Feversham is an officer in the British Army, but when his unit is called up to suppress a rebellion in a faraway land, he immediately resigns his commission. Harry, it seems, is a fraidy cat; the very thought of battle throws him into a cold sweat. But when his mates and his fiancÃe (an only slightly miscast Kate Hudson) send him white feathers ' the symbol of cowardice ' Harry's upper lip starts to stiffen. Soon, he shows up in the Sudan, eager to prove his mettle and save his friends from the Mahdi's hordes. This somehow involves posing as an Arab soldier, which fools just about everybody on screen and just about nobody off. I thought he looked like Robinson Crusoe.
Wes Bentley applies his American Beauty chops to the role of Jack, who also has eyes for Harry's fiancÃe and is willing to die in battle to prove his love. And Amistad's Djimon Hounsou brings the requisite dignity to Abou, the archetypal Good (i.e., he sides with the British) African. But none of the performances gel because the story's such a muddle, lurching forward and backward. It's as if the scriptwriters have left out whole chapters. But even if they'd included every sentence, The Four Feathers would still be feather-brained; it just doesn't seem to know where it stands. In the early days of African decolonization ' the '50s and '60s ' there was a rash of British movies in which Her Majesty's Service won Pyrrhic victories: Guns at Batasi, Zulu, Khartoum. Thirty years later, they're still winning them. But isn't it high time we heard more about the Muslim insurgents whom they supposedly defeated?