Loyalty vs. cowardice in the trenches

In 'The Four Feathers,' an Englishman musters the courage to save his friends

Historical epics are back in style. Thanks to pictures like "Gladiator" and "Braveheart," studios are planning wide-screen adventures about everything from the fall of the Alamo to the exploits of Alexander the Great.

Whether this trend thunders into the future or fades into the sunset could depend on how well "The Four Feathers" fares this month. Based on a 1902 novel that's been filmed at least five times before, the story gives ample opportunity for large-scale action and suspense, which director Shekhar Kapur supplies with tremendous skill.

It also raises larger issues, related to colonialism and the morality of war, that Kapur treats with less enthusiasm. This may not bother moviegoers looking only for a rousing spectacle. But it's unexpected from the maker of "Elizabeth" and "Bandit Queen," and it makes the film a less resonant ride than it might have been.

The hero is Harry Faversham, a young soldier who joined the military to please his father. His fellow officers are excited when they learn their Royal Cumbrian Regiment is about to leave for combat in the Sudan, but Harry feels enough anxiety to pack up his uniform and resign. Surprised by his weakness, his three best friends express their scorn by sending him a packet of white feathers – symbols of cowardice – and soon his fiancée adds a fourth.

Ashamed and alone, Harry lurches into action with no clear plan except to redeem his honor. Soon he's combing the desert in search of ways to assist his former comrades from the sidelines, helped by a North African mercenary who becomes his accomplice.

Kapur handles the film's spectacular elements with sure-handed expertise. The colors are resplendent, the settings and costumes ring with authenticity, and every hoof-beat of every horse is flawlessly filmed and edited. As an exercise in sheer craft, "The Four Feathers" is the movie to beat this season.

Other aspects are less impressive, including the psychology of the story. Harry's apprehensions about warfare are understandable: He knows combat in the Sudan won't be a picnic in the sand. But given all the peer pressure working against him, it's not clear why he's so quick to run away – or to reverse himself and head into battle as a lone wolf, the most perilous position of all.

This makes reasonably good sense if we see Harry as a true nonconformist whose bravery needs unconventional outlets. Kapur fails to explore this angle, though, weakening the credibility of his main character. He also declines to tackle colonialism with depth or passion. One might expect a filmmaker born in India to treat the once-mighty British Empire with more than a touch of skepticism, but Kapur seems inclined to let bygones be bygones.

"The Four Feathers" ends on the same dubious note as "Black Hawk Down" and other recent war movies, suggesting that loyalty in the trenches – not the reason for fighting in the first place – is all that matters. Many will disagree.

• Rated PG-13 for violence.

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