SHEKHAR Kapur has never faced such flak before. The Boston Globe calls his much-awaited new film The Four Feathers "as moth-eaten as a Bengal tiger rug on the floor of a London men's club". The New York Times is as unsparing. "The picture's wheezing fussiness and devotion to the British empire and its minor nods to questioning unthinking loyalty to an ideal make The Four Feathers a possible first of a kind: a movie that's half-hearted about ambivalence," writes Elvis Mitchell in the paper. And AP film critic Ben Nuckols laments that the film proves that Kapur's "cinematic assuredness has eroded in the nearly four years since his last film".
This is disturbing tidings for the Indian director who was surely expecting The Four Feathers to repeat the commercial success of his last film Elizabeth. Kapur's film—the seventh remake of a sweeping epic set in 19th century England and Africa—opened last week to a tepid $7.1 million at the American box office. That tied it for fourth with Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, the Antonio Banderas-Lucy Liu spy-action film with a storyline even more off-putting than its title.
The film is about a dashing British soldier, Harry (played by Heath Ledger), who is terrified at the prospect of fighting in a war in 19th century Sudan. The day after his unit is given one week's notice to leave, he resigns from the army, certain that his fiancee, Ethne (Kate Hudson), will support him even if his army buddies don't. Unfortunately for Harry, she doesn't either, and sends him the last of his four feathers, meant to symbolise his cowardice. Soon after his unit leaves, a brooding and much scruffier Harry decides he will join them in Africa, where he hopes to redeem himself.
Some of the earlier remakes of the film were possibly much better. In the first half of the 20th century, the story, from a 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason, was repeatedly adapted for the big screen. The 1939 version is considered by many to be the definitive version. And many critics have asked why anyone would remake the film, after it has been done so many times. This, of course, is naive, particularly in a culture that has as short-term a memory as America's. Kapur has maintained that while earlier versions romanticised the British imperialist ideal, his purpose was to show for the first time the downside of the Empire. This may strike some as a bit outdated, and ultimately, it's a major reason why the film doesn't work.
In one particularly lavish and gripping battle scene, British troops assemble into a square formation as they are besieged from all sides by the enemy. This should be the perfect moment for all in the audience to stand up, united, and shout "Die, British scum!". But there's a bit of a problem here. While making it easy for us to rail against the Empire, and to show how absurd their emphasis on order and discipline can be, Kapur hasn't really given us a better option. Clearly, we're not going to cheer for a bunch of dark, camel-riding savages who speak in strange tongues and do little more than push our sweet, English-speaking hero around, are we?
Kapur has attempted to present his story in epic format while subverting the grand imperial narrative that lies at the epic's heart, and in the end we feel a bit confused, even indifferent. It's hard to understand Harry's motivation for quitting the army, and in absence of that, the rest of his actions seem super-heroic. As many critics have charged, the film doesn't allow us to connect with the characters.
"If Harry's transformation in the desert is such a profound one, what has he learned?" asked Michael O'Sullivan in The Washington Post. "He walks in a callow boy and crawls out a man. But what he (and the movie) doesn't seem to get is that self- sacrifice doesn't really mean anything unless you have something to lose."
Nonetheless, there are some eerie moments in the film. Harry's attempt to blend in with the locals causes him to look strikingly like John Walker Lindh, the American charged with joining the Taliban last year. And when the British unit shoots an African gunman, only to be stoned by local children, it draws obvious parallels to the American presence in West Asia. In some ways, Kapur has managed to make his film far more topical than American critics may be willing to concede. But it doesn't stop The Four Feathers from turning out to be a vapid flopshow.
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