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The four feathers - Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Shekhar Kapur

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Movie propaganda

Freedom. Country. Honour. Passion. To save his best friend, one man must risk everything he loves.

Set in Britain and war-torn Sudan in 1884, to his four life-long friends, Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) appeared to have it all. He was a young lieutenant in the world's most powerful army, engaged to a beautiful woman and the son of a celebrated general - until the day his regiment was called up for battle in Northern Africa and he abruptly resigned. In this moment of fear, he lost everything - except four feathers of shame given to him by his friends.

The only way to redeem himself is to assume a new identity, travel across a continent, face a danger he cannot escape and find the man he was meant to be.

Theatrical propaganda posters

The four feathers image

Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film drama romance historical war British Empire cowardice Sudan

Persons of interest

  • Wes Bentley .... Jack Durrance
  • Campbell Brown .... Dervish Ansar
  • Daniel Caltagirone .... Gustave
  • James Cosmo .... Colonel Sutch
  • Angela Douglas .... Aunt Mary
  • Lucy Gordon .... Isabelle
  • Megan Hall .... Millie
  • Djimon Hounsou .... Abou Fatma
  • Kate Hudson .... Ethne
  • Alex Jennings .... Colonel Hamilton
  • Heath Ledger .... Harry Faversham
  • Julio Lewis .... Saadi
  • AEW Mason .... Author
  • Zoltan Korda .... Storywriter
  • Hossein Amini .... Screenwriter
  • Michael Schiffer .... Screenwriter
  • Shekhar Kapur .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Special Agent Matti

Theatrical report

The four feathers is an epic tale of war, romance and honour. It is about men running around in bright red uniforms shooting anyone who wasn't British (or adopting them into the Empire). It is about the overwhelming power of social conditioning in a society that ruled a quarter of the Earth and had ties to all the rest. It is also about redemption.

But enough proselytising, you want to know whether or not you should bother to see the film. Unfortunately, there's no single answer to that. If you like young men in uniform keeping stiff upper lips then The four feathers is a perve-fest not seen since the Raj. Heath keeps a plum in his mouth the whole time (although his horse-riding is somewhat rough) while Wes cuts as dashing a figure as can be imagined. Even when he's crippled in the latter half of the film he maintains a perfect English gentility. Djimon plays the noble savage with a lifetime gym membership while Kate seems tragic. Heath's transformation into a fake Arab is surprisingly convincing except that his hair seems to grow overnight.

The running around and fighting is fun, especially if you're into historical running around and fighting, and the falling in love is lovely, especially if you're into historical falling in love. They seem to talk about it more in the old days. In the new days it's more about doing it... then talking to your therapist when it all goes wrong.

The four feathers is a credible addition to the epic genre but it falls at the smaller end of the epicness scale, probably because so much of the film is Harry Faversham running around in The Sudan. (I love the way that sounds: "The Sudan" - it has an Imperial quality that "The Desert" or "northern Africa" or even "Sudan" just doesn't impart.) Still, it's a good story and a good examination of the times. Partake: enjoy.

Media intelligence (DVD)

  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound
  • Disc: Single side, dual layer
  • Languages: English
  • Picture: Widescreen (2.35:1)
  • Special features:
    • Featurettes:
      • A historical perspective
      • A journey of self-discovery
      • A journey from within
      • Surviving the prison
      • The battle of Abou Clea
      • The friendship of Abou Fatma
      • The mystery of the desert
      • The sounds of East and West
  • Subtitles: English, English captions, English closed captions

Security censorship classification

MA 15+ (Medium level violence)

Surveillance time

131 minutes (2:11 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 5 June 2003
DVD retail: 21 April 2004
DVD retail: 10 November 2004 - Double pack

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The four feathers production notes

At the helm of The four feathers is Shekhar Kapur, the director of the Academy Award-winning Elizabeth, a critically acclaimed film that also garnered Kapur a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director. Featuring a talented cast, The four feathers stars Heath Ledger (A knight's tale, Monster's ball, The patriot and 10 things I hate about you), Wes Bentley, whose fascinating performance in the Academy Award-winning American beauty earned him a Screen Actors Guild Award, and Kate Hudson, whose stand-out performance in Almost famous won her a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination.

The story is about Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), admired by comrades as one of the finest British soldiers in his regiment. Passionately devoted to his beautiful bride-to-be, Ethne (Kate Hudson), Harry has a promising future in the military and a happy life ahead of him with the woman he loves. But when an army of Sudanese rebels attacks a colonial British fortress in Khartoum and his regiment is sent to active duty in North Africa, Harry becomes overwhelmed by self-doubt and uncertainty and resigns his commission as his regiment is being shipped off to war.

Shocked by his son's actions, Harry's father disowns him. Assuming he is afraid, three of Harry's friends - and even Ethne his fiancée - each send him a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, none of them able to understand what Harry has done.

Tormented, isolated and alone in London, Harry learns that his best friend Jack (Wes Bentley) and his former regiment have fallen under brutal attack by rebels. Instantly, the bond he has with his comrades inspires him to transcend his uncertainty and self-doubt in order to take on the one mission that is stronger than his resolve against war - saving his friends at all costs.

Undertaking the perilous journey into the Sudan alone, he strikes up an alliance with Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), a wise mercenary warrior. Harry then disguises himself as an Arab and goes behind enemy lines to rescue Jack and the rest of his regiment, in an act of unparalleled self-sacrifice and bravery.

The four feathers takes place during the heyday of imperialism when the nations of Europe were scrambling to divide Africa among themselves. In 1884, a Muslim religious leader, Muhammad Ahmed, known as the Madhi, led the Sudanese Arabs in a revolt against British rule, and General Charles Gordon was dispatched to quell the rebellion. But the Madhi's warriors proved to be too much for Gordon, and he and his men found themselves besieged in Khartoum, which eventually fell in 1885, sending the General and much of his Army to their graves.

Inspired by AEW Mason's classic novel, the film begins in 1875, ten years before the fall of Khartoum to the Madhi's warriors. It is the extraordinary story of the courageous British reinforcement troops sent to raise the siege of Khartoum, and it exemplifies the pride of those young soldiers as well as their vulnerability against an enemy unafraid to die.

The four feathers is perhaps more contemporary today than ever because of the nation's passion for patriotism, a theme which is at the heart of the film. But while young Harry Faversham is certainly proud to serve his country, he is concerned about fighting blindly in the name of England's imperialist expansion, and that is what sets the film in motion.

"Young men during the time of The four feathers would not question their duty to fight for their queen and their country," says director Shekhar Kapur. "Harry's doubts make the story particularly interesting because, in order to face his fears, he is forced to go beyond them. The question is: Was his resignation an act of cowardice or was it actually an act of great courage?"

"At its core, this is a film about boys going to war and becoming men," stresses Kapur. "It is about the transition from the naïve certainties of boyhood to the acknowledgement of doubt, and finally to the self-awareness of manhood. What I'm doing is portraying England as a place where no questions are asked. Then, through the journey into the Sudan, I'm presenting a place where questions have to be asked."

In the beginning of the film the main character of The four feathers, Harry Faversham, is the envy of all his friends - the confident rugby player who has won the heart of the prettiest girl. But when his regiment is called to war, he begins to question everything... especially himself.

"Harry Faversham is a man facing his greatest fear – self doubt. Therefore, I was looking for an actor who could be dignified even in doubt," says Kapur. "I needed someone who could ultimately emerge from boyhood to manhood and finally to true wisdom. When I tested Heath, I was surprised that someone so young could have such wisdom."

Australian born Ledger, who portrayed the suicidal son in Monster's ball, opposite Billy Bob Thornton, and the zealous young corporal in The patriot, opposite Mel Gibson, was accustomed to playing complicated characters with deep emotions, so when he was offered the lead role in The four feathers, he was more than excited.

"The script was absolutely brilliant," says Ledger, "and taking part in this film was quite a journey for me. Although it was hard - emotionally and physically, spiritually and mentally - it was also a lot of fun."

Harry's best friend, Jack Durrance, is portrayed by Wes Bentley. Known for playing the deeply complex neighbour in American beauty, Bentley views Durrance as a man who sees the world very clearly, so it is most ironic that his character should eventually go blind.

"Durrance sees everything as either black or white," explains the actor. "He is a man of duty not only to his country, but to his friends and to the woman he loves."

"Durrance is obsessed with his world view of absolute morality. Right and wrong are clear definitions. However, as he is pushed into grey areas by events in the film, like Harry, he too is forced to come to terms with who he really is," adds Kapur. "Wes Bentley was just right for the role not only because I needed someone who looks extraordinary, but also because he could portray someone with a complex and an obsessive personality. His startling blue eyes represented clarity, and blindness was a metaphor for loss of clarity. Wes showed that kind of complexity in ‘American Beauty,' and I was very impressed with him from the start."

Kate Hudson, best known for her breakout role in Almost famous, has the complex role of Ethne, a young woman whose undying passion for Harry is complicated by his decision not to go to war.

"Ethne's character is a very interesting one," says Hudson. "On the one hand, her love for Harry appears unshakeable, but on the other, she is completely swayed by the perceptions of everyone around her. I liked the complexity of the role, and I think given the circumstances, her response to Harry's actions is completely realistic for that period of time or even for today."

Hudson added that she also was eager to come on board The four feathers because she wanted to work with Shekhar Kapur.

"I think he's an amazing director, and together with cinematographer Robert Richardson, I knew this movie would turn out to be spectacular," says Hudson. "With a story as powerful as this, I definitely wanted to be a part of it."

The theme of friendship, which is prominent throughout The four feathers, is perhaps best depicted in the relationship between Harry and Abou Fatma, the African warrior who meets Harry upon his arrival in the Sudan. Portrayed by Djimon Hounsou, who garnered a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in Steven Spielberg's Amistad and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for his role in Gladiator, Abou Fatma adds a new dimension to the film not seen in previous versions of the story.

"In essence, my character is Harry's guardian angel. That's why he appears and disappears similar to a shadow," observes Hounsou. "He's Harry's alter ego and helps him draw strength from his inner self. Together our characters represent the instant bonding of two very different spirits which complement each other while at the same time allowing each other to truly be individuals."

While the loyal Abou Fatma exemplifies the true meaning of friendship, Harry's Army friends are brash and jovial Trench, portrayed by Michael Sheen, pious Castelton, played by Kris Marshall, and officious Willoughby, portrayed by Rupert Penry-Jones. Even though these are the three who contemptuously send him a white feather after he resigns his commission, Harry is willing to risk his life for them and for his best friend Durrance.

"Although there's a great camaraderie between Harry and his friends, especially at the beginning of the film, each goes on his own distinct journey," says Sheen, whose character Trench's particularly difficult journey ends up in prison camp. "Playing Trench made me think a lot about how precious life is and the extent to which human beings will go simply to survive."

"All of the characters are strong, yet each has distinctive strengths and weaknesses," observes Marshall. "This is a film about friendship, and the regret, faith, trouble and strife comrades go through. It's a wonderful story."

While director Kapur infuses The four feathers with the bond of friendship, to him the film is essentially about self-doubt and the courage to face it. In exploring this aspect in young Harry's character, co-screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini examine how Harry questions not only himself but also his country's drive to colonise the Sudan.

"This was a time when young men were simply expected to fight for the expansion of England, maintaining their personal honour," says Schiffer, who wrote the screenplays for the hard-hitting dramas Colours and Crimson tide. "What's so interesting about this story is here's a young man who goes against the grain of society, loses everything - including his good name - and then regains all he lost and more."

To Amini, whose adaptation of Harry James' novel, The Wings of the Dove, earned him a 1998 Oscar nomination, conveying the impact between two very different cultures was key in illuminating the growth of Harry's character.

"Imperial England was confronting a world and society about which it knew very little," says Amini. "Those young men went from fantastic country mansions into the middle of the desert, and in the end their overconfidence and belief in their superiority led to mistakes and ultimately disaster. It's a fascinating story."

About the production

Principal photography on The four feathers began in Morocco where the immense desert vistas and striking beauty of the country provided an exotic backdrop for the film. Shooting took place in several locations throughout Morocco, including the tall mountains of Fint, through which Harry struggles to rise above a desert oasis, and the 600-year-old town of Ait Ben Hobdou, which was used to represent the fortress of Abou Clea. In addition, many of the exquisite shots depicting seas of sand dunes were taken near the town of Merzouga, known in Arabic as Erj Eregue Chebi (or "Sand Desert"), an exotic locale where dunes rise as high as 400 feet and stretch row after row to the horizon.

After filming was complete in Morocco, the production moved to various locations throughout England, shooting at such sites as Blenheim Palace (the birthplace of Winston Churchill) and Hyde Claire Castle (the residence of Lord Carnarvon, who was instrumental in finding King Tut's tomb), as well as inside the elegant grandeur of British countryside manors.

But according to location manager Marco Giacalone, filming in Morocco provided the most challenge. "While the country is a wonder of riches, making the ravishing sites film-friendly wasn't easy," he says, adding that the working season in Morocco is restricted to winter months, as summer temperatures can soar upwards of 120 degrees. Even in the cooler months temperatures can be blistering, so a team of young Moroccans delivered a steady stream of water bottles to the film crew throughout the shoot. Sandstorms were an ever-present risk, even the ones that the crew generated using fans the size of aeroplane propellers.

"As a guard from the elements, filmmakers operated from a temporary base camp assembled at the various location sites," says Giacalone. "When audiences see the movie, they have no idea that behind-the-scenes there's a whole world of tents set up for the cast and crew."

According to unit production manger Roberto Malerba, "These tent cities are like mini studios in the desert with wardrobe tents, control tents, medical tents, make-up tents and so on." And, when filming scenes like the climactic battle, which included as many as 1300 extras and 200 animals, additional provisions had to be made for them as well.

"Local sensibilities in Islamic Morocco also had to be taken into account," adds Malerba, who remembers that one village did not want the production anywhere nearby for fear that the villagers' daughters would fall in love with crew members and lose interest in village boys.

While the location manager and the unit production manager had their hands full with securing the sites and making provisions for the cast and crew, making the stark atmosphere of the hot African desert come alive on the screen was the task of director of photography Robert Richardson. He won an Academy Award for his cinematography in the 1995 political drama JFK and earned Oscar nominations for Snow falling on cedars, Born on the fourth of July and Platoon.

"My main technique for filming the desert scenes was to shoot into the sun," says Richardson. "By back-lighting the shot, I was able to produce a sharp contrast between the characters and the landscape."

Director Shekhar Kapur says that Richardson's technique used sparingly isn't unusual, but to stick to it throughout an entire film as the cinematographer did in The four feathers is quite unusual. "It gives the film an edgy feeling," says Kapur, "and a sense of total reality, which is exactly what I was looking for. Richardson's other great quality is his ability to infuse energy into every shot through the way he operates his camera."

Achieving realism and dramatic impact in battle sequences was the task of military co-ordinator Henry Camilleri. Even though many of the extras in the battles were professional soldiers, recreating a Victorian Army, with its constant emphasis on repetitive drill, was a challenge, if only in making sure the marching sequences were accurate.

"The way that soldiers marched in Victorian days was totally different from today's style," says Camilleri. "The real soldiers had to unlearn everything they had previously learned in the military and learn the way things were done in the 1800s."

Costume designer Ruth Myers was responsible for the authenticity of the British soldiers' uniforms as well as for Kate Hudson's Victorian dresses and ball gowns and the costumes worn by the Muslim rebels. Myers' goal - to express through costuming the mythic power of the story - turned into a challenge when she was asked to create the look and feel of repressive, starchy Victorian England as it collides with 19th Century Africa.

"The film takes place when the English are at the height of their supremacy within the Empire," says Myers, a two-time Oscar nominee for such diverse films as Emma and The Addams family. Despite the rigidity of the society, she observes, the Army officers were aristocrats, who purchased their own uniforms and could select some of the detailing. Thus, as the film progresses, Harry's Army friends each begin to show subtle touches in their clothing that convey the distinction between their characters.

The moment the British soldiers step foot on foreign soil, however, chaos sets in and, according to Myers, the costuming had to reflect the change in atmosphere. In particular, the crowd scenes were an issue since director Shekhar Kapur wanted to emphasise every person as an individual and show their distinct differences. Therefore, in order to distinguish each character from the crowd, Myers added a special touch to his or her clothing. In that way, through all the various visuals presented in the costuming, Myers was able to accentuate the sense of chaos that spreads throughout the film once the young Englishmen leave the comfort of their homeland.

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