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Feeble Empire

If you can’t buy The Four Feathers’ story, just shut up and enjoy the pretty pictures.







Hi. It’s me, the guy who kept telling you to shut up. Yes, you’re funny, and yes, I really cannot seriously expect you to believe that shit, but would you just shut up? Even now, I bet you’re reading this aloud, sounding out the tough words. Shut up, ass clown.

And by the way, complain all you want about Hollywood’s moral and creative vacuum—a stance that really says more about you than Hollywood, if you want to know the truth, you elitist bastard—but you’ve got to acknowledge that not a month goes by any more that we’re not given a movie with visual images that simply boggle the mind. We’re watching cinema in an extraordinary age of set design, art direction, camera technology and lighting. The shared history of more than 100 years of filmmaking has produced a body of knowledge that grants tangibility to any figment of our imagination. Best of all, it’s only going to get better—script, story and acting are all subjective tastes, but for sheer artistic spectacle—it’s a wonderful time to be sitting in the dark. Unless you’re sitting behind us, that is.

While you were talking—and taking a cell phone call!—I was getting wowed by a few images from The Four Feathers that will stick with me for years. You’re right, you’re right: It’s a tepidly pointless remake of a silly, oft-told story about British colonial imperialism, with all sorts of unjustified seriousness and improbable motivations. The acting is marginal at best, with Heath Ledger and Wes Bentley poorly cast and Kate Hudson just, well, poor.

But the pictures, man. Director Shekhar Kapur’s conception of 19th-century war in the desert is something we’ve never really seen before. It’s about shadows, thunder and menacing clouds of dust, and it has a fascinating ebbing rhythm and flow, like a human tide pool. Some of these desert scenes enthrall us solely with the sheer ambition of it all—and I don’t think you saw the wonders unfolding in front of you.

In case you were riffing on the costumes and missed it, Harry (Ledger) is a hotshot soldier in the heyday of the bullying, presumptuous British empire. When his regiment is sent to the Sudan, where some locals think they might like to govern themselves, he gets seized with self-doubt and resigns his commission.

Harry’s friend (Bentley), his fiancé (Hudson, shudder) and this other guy send him feathers, which you understood to be an invitation to one of those creepy workshops where they teach middle-aged people to be kinkier with their drooping sex partners. Apparently, white feathers are what British people send to cowards—one of those absurdly theatrical gestures that no doubt assured the end of the Empire itself, like going down with the ship or eating mushy peas.

When Harry hears his regiment is in trouble, his stage fright evaporates, and he races off to the Sudan. You’re right: Neither his cowardice nor his courage make any sense, and that silliness sabotages everything else.

But there’s more to dislike about this movie besides its improbabilities. It’s a film about imperialism, but it doesn’t seem to have a viewpoint on a subject that’s just begging for a revisionist cinematic examination. And I couldn’t believe you missed the disgusting Noble Savage played by Djimon Hounsou—a native mercenary who immediately drops his whole life to follow Harry around and save his ass because “God put you in my path” or something. And this is a film from an Indian director! Reprehensible, and uncool.

OK, that’s enough esprit de l’escalier. So to recap, shut up and watch the movie. Yes, I howled along with you at Hudson’s attempts to act, and I loved playing Let’s-think-of-other-uses-for-the-hair-that-was-Bentley’s-attempt-at-a-mustache. But you forgot to be suitably awed by the beauty of The Four Feathers. If you lose your sense of wonder at the movies, all you’ll have left is your sense of humor. Lord knows you’re funny, but you talk too much.