But it is an incoherent mess. Some of the film's scenes can be moving in a lovely period piece sort of way, and the cast includes attractive young performers such as Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley and Kate Hudson, who manage to not embarrass themselves.
But, as a result of a perfunctory script by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, supremely sloppy editing and a lack of overall vision, nothing in the picture seems to hang together. It moves from scene to scene without a sense of continuity. One thing just seems to happen after another, but how we get from here to there seems to be missing. It's a case of over-developed muscle without the connective tissue.
A.E.W. Mason's 1901 novel The Four Feathers has been filmed at least five times before, most notably the 1939 classic directed by Zoltan Korda and a 1977 TV movie starring Beau Bridges and Jane Seymour.
Either of those versions would be probably be a better bet than this bloated interpretation. And you can watch either of those in the privacy of your own living room.
But if you simply must go to your neighborhood monster-plex, this Feathers at least features a valiant Ledger, two-thirds of the time looking funkily disheveled in long hair and beard, and a dewy-eyed Hudson, exhibiting about a tenth of the charisma she showed in Almost Famous.
Ledger plays Harry Feversham, a dashing English officer in a celebrated unit of the British army and the son of a masterful general. He's affianced to the fetching, but not too challenging, Ethne (Hudson). His fast friend is Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), a no-nonsense lieutenant. The boys are having a grand old time playing rugby and engaging in training exercises as they prepare for a life as soldiers.
But when a band of Sudanese rebels attacks a British fortress in North Africa, their unit is called to its first military action. Everybody's gung-ho and chomping at the bit for some fighting in the name of the Queen.
But on the eve of the unit's departure for the Sudan, Harry resigns his commission. The reasons for Harry's decision are never made clear. He initially claims he doesn't want to leave Ethne, but he vaguely questions the morality of the assignment. He also argues that he never really wanted to be a solider anyway, that he was just doing it for his father.
None of these arguments holds much water with Harry's family and friends. He is labeled a coward by his mates, his father and his fiancée. Three of his friends and Ethne each give Harry a white feather as a sign of cowardice.
So the troops leave without Harry, but after some soul-searching, he heads to the Sudan, too. He wants to prove his courage to himself, his lover, his father and his friends. So he grows his hair and beard, smudges some brown gunk over his face, dons a turban and goes undercover as a Muslim peasant working for the British.
Some viewers at an advance screening of this film vociferously noted that in his disguise Harry's the spitting image of John Walker Lindh, the misguided American kid who joined the Taliban. That's a clever observation, but in appearance and in deed, the character obviously has been intended to resemble Jesus Christ.
The dark and hirsute version of Harry mysteriously, mystically suffers for weeks on end in the desert. He sacrifices himself for his friends. He's kind in a saintly way to all those around him, refusing the services of prostitutes and saving slaves from beatings. He's even shown lugging a big wooden object across the sand--it's part of an English cannon, but the imagery is there.
Each time he saves one of his friends from certain death, sometimes without them even knowing it, Harry returns to him the feather with which he has been burdened.
Things get pretty heated between Harry and Jack, too. Since, by all appearances, Harry's seemingly fled the word in shame, Jack starts wooing the fair Ethne through letters. Later, there is a twist in which Jack looses his sight in battle, but he survives and is bedeviled with the fact that he doesn't know the identity of his savior. Surely this was intended as tragically ironic, but it just comes off as annoyingly contrived.
It must be mentioned that Bentley (whom you might remember as the oddball teen videographer in American Beauty) contributes an excellent performance as Jack, who seems to compensate for his narrow world-view and inherent prissiness by becoming a decorated war hero.
Attempts at good, old-fashioned epics in this post-modern age of moviemaking rarely succeed. The market is glutted with would-be auteurs whose knowledge of movie history seems to begin with Star Wars and whose attention spans are taxed by the work of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith.
But as was proven by Gladiator, there is an audience for epics. And in the absence of a real, old-fashioned epic to offer these viewers, this slapdash rehash of The Four Feathers will have to do.