'Feathers' gets lost in desert

The filmmaking team behind "The Four Feathers" thought it was crafting another "Lawrence of Arabia" but the result is closer to "Ishtar."

This old-fashioned desert epic isn't a total sand trap, yet considering the talent behind and in front of the camera it stands as a major disappointment. And if the decision-making processes behind most of the main characters are any way based on historical precedent, it's a wonder the British Empire didn't crumble a century earlier.


Special to the Journal-World

Heath Ledger stars as a Victorian-era British soldier who tries to redeem his honor in the epic "The Four Feathers."

This sixth adaptation of the A.E.W. Mason novel takes place in 1875 when "a fourth of the earth was conquered by (Britain)." Heath Ledger ("Monster's Ball") plays Harry, an officer in Her Majesty's army who is betrothed to the lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson). When Harry's regiment is ordered to ship out to North Africa in order to suppress a rebellion by the Sudanese, the soldier chooses to resign his commission.

Harry's peers, including Ethne and his best friend Jack (Wes Bentley), consider the deed pure cowardice, and they send him feathers as a symbol of this action. The tokens cause Harry to reconsider, and he journeys to the remote wasteland of the Sudan to try and redeem himself.

After being waylaid en route, he is saved from the scorching environment by warrior Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), who scolds, "You English walk too proudly on the earth." Believing this meeting was fate, however, Abou helps Harry to locate his friends and join in their ongoing battles against relentless hordes.

While "The Four Feathers" is boring enough to be considered overly long, it has the cohesion of a four-hour movie that was chopped down to two hours. There are enough jumps in the narrative to make one occasionally wonder if the reels got mixed up in the projection booth. (Witness the jarring transition of how Jack's return to England is never depicted, despite the sequence being needed in order to set up the film's ending revelation.)

Director Shekhar Kapur, who helmed the Oscar-nominated "Elizabeth" (and who inserts a quick cameo of a woman costumed as the titular queen into a parade scene), is a skillful craftsman at creating an exaggerated period look. But Kapur has one glaring flaw: He is in love with his camera. His relentlessly spinning, tilting, over-orchestrated shots constantly call attention to themselves. Consequently, the distracted viewer focuses on the cinematic technique rather than the story.

ReviewRating: * 1/2(PG-13)graphic violence,sexual content2 hours, 5 minutesSouthwind Twelve, 3433 Iowa

Save for one incredible overhead shot of a "British square" � a colonial military formation � being attacked from all sides, the visuals are too grandiose for their own good. The fact they are punctuated by backbreaking amounts of slow-motion running and yelling only adds to the pretension level.

The battle scenes start off promising. It's always interesting to watch the spit-and-polish British soldiers in their vivid red uniforms marching in step against threadbare guerilla opponents. Yet the skirmishes grow increasingly ridiculous.

In one laugher, the regiment is fighting on an endless desert plain with backs to each other in their square, while mounted Muslims begin to overwhelm them. Then an officer gives the order to retreat. If all sides are facing out, how can you retreat? And, to paraphrase Sam Kinison, "You're in the middle of a desert!" Where are you retreating to, the Red Sea?

These are many of the questions that come to mind, most of which can be aimed at screenwriter Michael Schiffer ("The Peacemaker"). While he seems to pilfer liberally from other movies � the emotional climax is lifted straight out of Chaplin's "City Lights," and the final speech delivered by Jack about fighting "side-by-side" echoes that of "Black Hawk Down" � the scenes don't carry the impact of their predecessors.

The actors can't be blamed. Ledger and Hudson are fine in their respective roles. Hudson proves she can play upper-class British as capably as down-to-earth Californian. Bentley sports the least convincing accent of the three but gives the most convincing performance, as a gentleman whose motivations are always buried beneath the surface.

Ultimately, though, this movie gets butchered in the editing room. There's hope that a Director's Cut might eventually clarify the sloppiness of the transitions. But until that point, audiences are stuck with a desert spectacle where much of the dramatic components have deserted the spectacle.


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