The Four Feathers is a 2002 war drama film directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson.
Set during the British Army’s Gordon Relief Expedition (late 1884 to early 1885) in Sudan, it tells the story of a young man accused of cowardice.
This film, with altered plot events, is the latest in a long line of cinematic adaptations of the 1902 novel The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason. Other versions of the story have been set in the 1890s, with different battle events.
Harry Faversham, a young British officer completing his training, celebrates his engagement to Ethne, in a ball with his fellow officers and father. When the Colonel announces that the regiment is being dispatched to Egyptian-ruled Sudan to rescue the British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, young Faversham has serious ethical reservations about the war, and resigns his commission. Harry’s father disowns him. Perceiving his resignation as cowardice, three of his friends and his fiancée each give him a white feather, the symbol of cowardice. Ethne breaks off their engagement.
Harry learns that his best friend Jack and his former regiment have come under attack by rebels. Undertaking the perilous journey into the Sudan alone, he strikes up an alliance with Abou Fatma, a mercenary warrior. Harry disguises himself as an Arab. Harry and Abou Fatma follow a group of army workers he believes to be Mahdi spies, and reach the garrison of Abu-Klea, which they realise has been overrun. Harry begs Abou Fatma to warn his friends that their destination is under siege and an attack is likely.
The regiment stopped its march to bury a group of British killed by the Mahdi. Abou Fatma is captured by Egyptian soldiers; believing he is an enemy scout, they bring him before the British officers. He tells the British that he has been sent by a British officer to warn them of the Mahdi’s attack. He says that Muslims always bury their dead and that of the enemy, but that these bodies have been left to keep the British occupied. Faversham’s comrades are worried, but ultimately they disregard Abou Fatma’s warnings and he is flogged as a suspected spy.
The British and Egyptian troops are not prepared for battle. The Mahdi rebels attack with spearmen, riflemen and cavalry, while the British forces form a defensive square. Firing volley after volley, the British repel the initial Mahdi assault just as they spot British cavalry reinforcements in their distinctive red uniforms. A force of skirmishers is sent to pursue the retreating Sudanese, but they are ambushed by Mahdi rebels and forced to fight on foot. Soon the British discover that the cavalry who they thought were reinforcements are Sudanese disguised in British uniforms. Among them is Faversham. The British square reorganises and fires a few volleys, in the process killing several skirmishers who have not yet returned to the square, including Edward Castleton who had given Harry a feather. Jack attempts to rescue Castleton in the process but is blinded when his rifle misfires. The British issue an order for retreat.
Harry finds Jack during the battle and protects him after he was blinded. Harry finds letters from Ethne to Jack, but cares for his friend without identifying himself. Never knowing his rescuer, Jack is transported to England. He asks Ethne to marry him, but she does not answer and discusses it with Harry’s father.
Tom, another officer, tells Jack that Harry had visited him in Sudan and told him he had sent Abou to warn the British, and was bitter that his friends had not heeded him. Harry asked Tom for money and explained that he believes Trench lives on in the notorious Mahdi prison of Omdurman and he was determined to rescue him. Abou advised Harry against this venture, but he goes anyway.
In the prison, Harry finds Trench. They suffer greatly as they are starved and struggle to survive. After a failed escape attempt, they realize attempting to escape is futile. Later Abou rescues Harry and Trench by giving them a poison to fake their deaths. A suspicious guard follows the removal of the bodies, along with three other guards. Harry and Abou kill the four. Abou returns to the desert, and Harry escorts Trench back to Britain. Harry is acknowledged by his father and Ethne reclaims her feather, as Harry has proved his bravery. She has become engaged to Jack.
Jack learns that Harry was his rescuer when he happens to touch his face; he releases Ethne from their engagement. After a ceremony of remembrance, Harry and Ethne hold hands and are engaged again.
- Heath Ledger as Harry Faversham.
- Wes Bentley as Jack Durrance.
- Djimon Hounsou as Abou Fatma.
- Kate Hudson as Ethne Eustace.
- Rupert Penry-Jones as Tom Willoughby.
- Kris Marshall as Edward Castleton.
- Michael Sheen as William Trench.
- Alex Jennings as Colonel Hamilton.
- James Cosmo as Colonel Sutch.
- Angela Douglas as Aunt Mary.
- Tim Pigott-Smith as General Faversham.
- Lucy Gordon as Isabelle.
- James Hillier as Drunken Corporal.
Three supporting artists were injured in an accident on set during filming in Greenwich.
The film opened in North American cinemas on 20 September 2002 and grossed $6,857,879 in its opening weekend, making number 5 at the US box office. The Four Feathers ended up making $29.8 million worldwide, failing to bring back its $35 million budget.
The film received mixed reviews from critics.
In 2003, it was issued as a Special Collector’s edition on DVD.
Four Feathers Films
You can find a full index and overview of The Four Feathers Films here.
Khartoum, a 1966 film dealing with the events leading up to General Gordon’s death.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Shekhar Kapur.
- Producer(s): Paul Feldsher, Robert Jaffe, Stanley R. Jaffe, and Marty Katz.
- Writer(s): Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini.
- Music: James Horner.
- Cinematography: Robert Richardson.
- Editor(s): Steven Rosenblum.
- Distributor(s): Paramount Pictures (US) and Miramax Films (International).
- Release Date: 20 September 2002.
- Running Time: 125 minutes (Toronto International Film Festival) and 130 minutes (general release).
- Rating: 15.
- Country: UK and US.
- Language: English.