The Four Feathers is a fantasy. Or, rather, it's best when viewed with an imaginative eye.
Set in a historical context, with beautifully realistic filming, it at times feels truthful. However, with a little creativity it not only becomes a swash-buckling, romantic adventure, but meaningful commentary too.
Feathers is the tale of two soldier friends, who not only look dashing in their regimentals, but also love the same woman, Ethne (Kate Hudson). They live a good, relaxing life, bashing each others noses in during rough rugby play, dancing with the local ladies, and goofing around in the fashion young men everywhere seem to do so well. However, their joy is not to last, as they're called to war. The first of the friends, Harry (Heath Ledger) refuses to go. He never wanted to be a soldier, and he questions British interests in the Sudan. While Feathers lets Harry say this as a coward justifying his fears, I prefer to pretend he says such things because he truly believes war is useless, that he's a peace-lover in an era of constant battle.
However, the other characters in the film, including Ethne, see only cowardice, and send Harry a collection of white feathers to mock him. Harry's best friend, Jack (Wes Bentley), refrains from such symbolism, disbelieving--as I do--that Harry could possibly be such a wimp.
Jack and the other soldiers end up in the Sudan, fighting a bloody battle against Mahdi's uprising. Disgraced, Harry travels there incognito as an Arab to try and help his friends and overcome their accusations of cowardice.
While in hiding, Harry befriends a local black man named Abou, who dresses in a loin-cloth though his perfect English suggests an educated mind. Abou acts as a rescuer, confidante, and eventually a messenger when Harry sends him to warn the British Red Coats of an ambush. Being that Abou is so well disguised as a local, the soldiers ignore his warnings to harsh consequences.
Harry rescues Jack, and afterwards tracks another friend, Trench (Michael Sheen), to a harsh Sudanese prison. There, he allows himself to be arrested with the intent of helping his friend escape. With his torturous trek through the desert to help Jack, and his painful imprisonment to help Trench, this movie would have you believe Harry really, really values friendship. However, a few subtle lines spark the imagination. Maybe he's not simply on a quest to save his friends, but is rather desperately punishing himself to purge the guilt he feels from his colonial homeland's arrogance and pride.
Had director Shekhar Kapur allowed the small slivers of brilliance to radiate, rather than overshadowing them with excessive Hollywood cheese, The Four Feathers would have been a shining example of historical filmmaking. By ignoring the silly excesses and focusing on the few lines of perfect dialogue, an imaginative viewer can pull great meaning and consequence from this film. It's too bad Kapur didn't bother to do so for the average viewer, the one who'll take this at face value.