Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), Trench (Michael Sheen), Castleton (Kris Marshall) and Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones) are officers in the British Army in the late 18th century, a time when the British Empire stretched far and wide covering almost a quarter of the globe, and weren’t they keen on preserving it? Of course an army is only as strong as the men in it. Strong armies are characterised by the grit, determination, bravery and tactical skills of those running the show, the officers, but when one pulls the pin and decides he has had enough, well the consequences are often enormous for those around him.
When Harry decides to resign his commission on the eve of his regiment's posting to Sudan, he is perceived as a coward by his officer mates, his father, General Faversham (Tim Piggot-Smith) and his fiancé, Ethne (Kate Hudson). It is while explaining his actions to Ethne that he receives three white feathers (for cowardice) in the post, from his officer buddies who have failed to understand his motivation - the need to rebel from his father who has mapped out his son’s military career but it still openly dismissive of his son’s inability to match his own glorious military achievements.
Ethne also fails to support Harry and hands him the fourth white feather. It doesn’t take long for Harry to realise that he is not actually a coward, and he feels the need to prove to everyone, himself included, that his resignation was a reaction to his father as much as anything else.
He manages to get himself smuggled into the Sudan, and a mess of trouble, before he is rescued from the desert and is befriended by a slave, Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), a guardian angel that is to come to his rescue many times during his time in Sudan. Harry manages to smuggle himself into the Mahdi ranks, and learns that a British outpost has been overtaken by the Mahdi where a trap has been set for the oncoming British, commanded by his former mates. He manages to smuggle them an anonymous message via Abou, but the British are too ignorant, pompous and stupid to take the message seriously and see it as a treacherous double cross. They learn the truth too late, and the Mahdi make a meal of the British forces.
Harry, still disguised as an Arab, though on the verge of being unmasked, manages to get to his mates but a little after the main event, finding Castleton dead, and Jack having lost his sight after a rifle backfire. It is while smuggling Jack away from the fray that he finds the letters that have been passing between Jack and his ex-fiancé, Ethne. It seems she may have shifted her loyalties...
Although he manages to smuggle Jack back into the hands of the British, Harry sticks around and gets captured, believing it is the only way to get to Trench and rescue him as well. The plan backfires and he ends up spending more time in that hell hole prison than he expected after the failure of his escape plan to bribe the guards.
Harry may have redeemed himself to some extent, but he needs to get this last rescue effected, return to England, and prove to all and sundry that he is not a coward. His ex-fiancé awaits, Jack and Ethne await, but all four feathers cannot be returned to their senders until he can get himself and Trench out of the prison, but that seems mighty unlikely.
Hollywood takes on British history are often fraught with factual and historical errors, and The Four Feathers is no exception, though the quibbles will pass most of us by. That aside, this is a well-acted and well-paced drama with a cast that do well with a sometimes predictable and clichéd script. Heath Ledger is rather convincing as Harry Faversham and Wes Bentley still maintains that air of mystery from American Beauty. There are some well-known supporting faces such as Tim Piggot-Smith and Rupert Penry-Jones (what’s with all the hyphenated names?), and only Kate Hudson come across as a little flat.
The battle scenes and the desert wanderings are quite effective and suitably graphic. The story is mostly linear, so once you sort out who is who it is mostly quite easy to track the characters as their paths diverge and converge. Considering this started life as a three-hour epic, it’s quite an achievement to finish up with a film that still works in this shorter length.
The Four Feathers is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours so long as you're not an historian with a penchant for turn of the century British war campaigns in Africa.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 aspect ratio presented here is almost flawless, as you would expect of a recent fair-budget effort. Colours are suitably muted for the grey English scenes, and there is greater use of earthy and warmer colours in the desert scenes. The image is always very sharp. There is no evidence of grain and only some very minor edge enhancement and some very mild pixellation.
The film is essentially glitch, mark and sparkle free, and there is no noticeable shimmer or aliasing. Some of the darkest scenes make it a little hard to decipher what is happening, but on the whole, shadow detail is good.
The layer change is placed between scenes at 86:55.
To augment the rather fine video is a well thought out and great sounding audio track. The only option is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that knows when rear channels are effective and when they are too much. The quieter indoor and romantic scenes are mostly front heavy, but the battle scenes, the prison scenes and other large gatherings make good use of the rears, as does the score.
Most dialogue comes from the centre speaker and is clear and synchronised. The volume may need the slightest of nudges, however. Low-level sounds are quite aggressive and the sub woofer gets a good work out during these times.
There is some noticeable separation of sound, especially when the boys have all their guns blazing and horses are charging all over the battlefield. In the event that you may need them, there are subtitles in English and in English for the Hearing Impaired.