The news of Australian actor Heath Ledger’s untimely death due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs has certainly been one of the most shocking stories in the entertainment industry this year. Fans and Hollywood insiders alike agreed that Ledger simply “didn’t seem the type” to be at risk for an overdose, unintentional or otherwise.
One of the reasons for this was the fact that Ledger was regarded as a serious actor rather than someone who was in the biz simply for the money or fame. People who held this opinion pointed out the roles that Ledger took, as the actor opted to take chances on scripts that truly appealed to him rather than just grab a part in the next shoot ‘em up blockbuster.
After reading through Ledger’s filmography at the time of his death, I realized that I hadn’t actually seen very many of his works. Therefore, I decided to watch The Four Feathers this weekend, a 2002 film starring Ledger, Kate Hudson, and Djimon Hounsou.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The Four Feathers is a period piece set in 1884-85. The film opens in Britain, where we meet several dashing members of the Royal Cumbrians, an infantry regiment in the British army. We’re reminded early on that back when the sun never set on the British Empire, it was the height of honor to serve in the royal army.
Life seems grand for Harry Feversham (Ledger) in these early stages. Not only is he one of the best officers in the regiment, but he also recently became engaged to the lovely Ethne (Hudson) and will take her hand in marriage very soon — much to the approval of Harry’s father, the strict General Feversham (Tim Pigott-Smith).
But then the Royal Cumbrians get some important news: their help is required in the Sudan where British forces are being assailed by Islamic rebels. Almost all of the Royal Cumbrians are elated by this order, as they will finally get a chance to partake in real battle. Only Harry is sickened by the thought of leaving England — and his beloved Ethne — behind.
So Harry does something that was absolutely unthinkable at the time. He resigned his post on the morning his regiment was supposed to ship out for the Sudan. Once word gets around the regiment, Harry is denounced as a coward and is immediately written off by all but one of his friends. He later gets a package in the mail containing three white feathers from his former comrades as a mark of his cowardice. Later, when Ethne hears what Harry has done, she too sends him a white feather and breaks off their engagement.
After a bit of soul-searching on the home front, Harry decides to join the Royal Cumbrians in the Sudan — in disguise. He travels there on his own dime, disguises himself as an Arab, befriends a Sudanese warrior named Abou Fatma (Hounsou), and shadows his regiment, performing various acts of bravery to try to keep his former friends out of danger.
My Reaction: I thought The Four Feathers was a very uneven movie. The early scenes that set up the Sudan portion of the film were well done and really gave me a sense of the pride and honor the Royal Cumbrians felt just for being given the chance to serve their country. I also thought Harry’s initial decision to quit, while perhaps a bit abrupt, was believable given the circumstances. After all, it seemed that he was only in the army because of his father, not because it was something he wanted to do.
After that, however, the film took a turn for the worse. I found it pretty ludicrous that Harry was able to do all the things he did while being in disguise (which, incidentally, was nothing more than a bushy beard). I mean, he turned into a veritable Johnny on the Spot, and always conveniently ended up in the right place at the right time.
Furthermore, I didn’t understand what drove Harry to suddenly turn into this totally selfless man who would stop at nothing (including self-sacrifice) to save his former comrades. If he had felt that way from the beginning, wouldn’t it have just been easier to stay in the Royal Cumbrians? Did the feathers drive him to become this way? If so, why? Harry didn’t seem to care about public opinion when he resigned his post, so why did he suddenly start caring a week later? Was it because Ethne left him and he felt he had nothing to live for? I don’t know. These things were hinted at, but I guess I really needed everything spelled out here.
At any rate, I wanted to like The Four Feathers out of deference to Ledger’s passing if nothing else. But I just can’t give it any more than a rating of 3 stars out of 5.