A.E.W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers has been filmed several times, with movie adaptations dating back to 1915, but the story's emphasis on the battle between a global superpower and Muslim zealots gives it a distinctly contemporary edge. Director Shekhar Kapur follows his acclaimed 1998 historical drama Elizabeth with a new version of Feathers, starring Heath Ledger as a British officer's son who enrolls in the military largely out of a sense of familial obligation. When his unit is dispatched to protect Britain's holdings in faraway Sudan, he reconsiders that decision and resigns his post. His friends and colleagues in arms register their disgust with what they perceive as cowardice by sending him the titular feathers, which serve as the ultimate mark of a soldier's shame. Even Ledger's adoring fiancée (a game but overmatched Kate Hudson) abandons him when she learns why he resigned his post. Stripped of his identity and sense of purpose, Ledger heads to Sudan in an attempt to redeem himself. There, he joins a ragtag group of locals who fight alongside the British, although their ranks include a large contingent of enemy spies who do little to mask their contempt for the condescending, abusive British. Sunburned, shaggy-haired, and unkempt, Ledger bears an unnerving resemblance to Jesus Christ, not only sharing Christ's suffering and willingness to martyr himself, but at one point even mimicking his resurrection. The makers of The Four Feathers face a daunting task in making audiences care about soldiers fighting for an imperialist force while also acknowledging the arrogance and intolerance of imperialism. Ultimately, Kapur fudges the issue of colonialism's morality by making Ledger and his British friends' underlying causes not so much God or country as friendship, soldierly solidarity, and personal pride. Of course, The Four Feathers' messy, sometimes contradictory politics would be a moot point if the film didn't work as a drama and a larger-than-life adventure story. Thankfully, it does: Ledger is a charismatic, conflicted hero who internalizes his character's shame and anguish to powerful effect. Wes Bentley is similarly strong as Ledger's best friend turned romantic rival, and Kapur makes the most of Africa's breathtaking desert, crafting a gorgeous spectacle that's at once stately and hyper-real, like Lawrence Of Arabia crashing into Black Hawk Down. A sometimes leaden, overly twist-laden final half-hour drags the film down a bit, but for much of its duration, Feathers is old-fashioned in the best way, a crackling yarn told on an epic scale.
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