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Film / The Four Feathers

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The Four Feathers is a 2002 film directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Heath Ledger, the latest of several based on the 1902 novel of the same name by A.E.W. Mason.

The film is set in 1880s Britain and the Sudan during the Mahdist Revolt. After resigning from the British Army the week they were to ship out to fight the Mahdi in the Sudan, Harry Faversham (Ledger) receives four feathersnote  from his friends and his fiancée. Shaken by guilt, he decides to redeem himself by going to the Sudan alone and find his friends.

A co-production of Paramount and Miramax, it is now distributed worldwide by the former after it purchased a minority stake in the latter in 2020.

This film provides examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: When Faversham and Abou Fatma enter the fort that is held by the Mahdi's army, the soldiers can be heard singing "Tsamina", a 1986 hit song by a Cameroonian group, based on the slang of Cameroonian sharpshooters in World War II.
  • Artistic License History: Probably the most egregious flaw, the Battle of Abu Klea was a British victory.
  • Artistic License Military: Well, a British campaign was fought in the Sudan in 1884. That's about all it gets right. Major points include: The British wore grey, not red, in the Sudan, the force sent was much larger and comprised of several regiments, not just one.
  • Ascended Extra: Abou Fatma is a minor Chekhov's Gunman character in the novel who delivers General Gordon's letters to Jack, then disappears until the very end, when he helps Harry and Trench escape from prison. In the movie he's promoted to Harry's sidekick with a much larger role.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Subverted spectacularly with Abou Fatma during the prison escape, with a little Call-Back to an earlier trick that the Mahdi used.
  • Butt-Monkey: Edward Castleton. He is usually the butt of jokes from Harry's other friends. Nevertheless, Castleton is loyal and the only one of his friends that didn't send Harry a feather. Castleton is killed in battle by friendly fire after failing to get back into the defense square.
  • Deconstruction: The original novel's Victorian-era values of extreme Stoicism, empire-building, and doing one's social duty are all criticised, and Harry's attempt to single-handedly redeem himself goes pretty badly until he gets help from Abu Fatma (although that falls into another trope).
  • Determinator: Harry is an Action Survivor who repeatedly goes through hell to rescue his friends. Determination is usually all that carries him through.
  • Dirty Coward: Harry is seen as this after he resigns from the unit by his friends, his fiancee, and even his father.
  • Eye Scream: Jack's rifle explodes in his face, blinding him.
  • Fake Brit: Australian Heath Ledger and Americans Wes Bentley and Kate Hudson.
  • Kick The Son Of A Bitch: Harry's first reaction to Jack after he saves Jack and discovers his letters from Ethne. Subverted when Harry learns that Jack is blind.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Harry's first guide in the Sudan cruelly whipped an African princess traveling with them until Harry stopped him. The African princess and her accomplice kill the guide in his sleep, while sparing Harry.
  • Love Triangle: Harry and Ethne are engaged. Jack is in love with Ethne. As soon as Harry disappears, Jack starts courting Ethne. Jack calls off his engagement with Ethne when he finds out Harry saved his life. Harry and Ethne are engaged again.
  • MacGuffin: The four feathers he received from Jack, Willoughby, Trench, and Ethne.
  • Mistaken for a Spy: Abou Fatma, sent by "a British officer" [Harry] to warn his unit of the upcoming ambush, is thought to be a spy and is whipped without any consideration towards his message.
  • Oh, Crap!: Harry's unit experienced this in battle. Upon closer inspection of a red-coated cavalry riding toward them in the heat of battle:
    "It's not the British! It's the Mahdi!"
  • Rugby is Slaughter The opening scene.
  • True Companions: Harry and his friends, Jack Durrance, Tom Willoughby, Edward Castleton and William Trench.
  • War Is Glorious: A widely-believed view by the British Army at the time.
  • What Were You Thinking?: Harry gives this to Willoughby for not listening to Abou Fatma's message from him, along with a big dose of What the Hell, Hero?
  • Wretched Hive: The Sudan is portrayed as this.
  • Zerg Rush: The strategy of the Mahdi against the British.