The Four Feathers

By Tyler Gilmer

The movie, The Four Feathers, is a 2002 America action film based on A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel, also entitled The Four Feathers. The novel is the basis of six previous films, each film with the underlying premise of dealing with a passage of boys to manhood through the glory of war. The theme of cowardice, courage, and honor is re-examined in all versions of the film. The 2002 remake is directed by Shekhar Kapur and stars Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, and Kate Hudson. The British plan, in this movie, is to send a regiment of soldiers into Egyptian-ruled Sudan to rescue the British war hero, General Charles Gordon. Gordon is under attack by the Islamic rebels of the Mahdi in the city of Khartoum. The young British soldiers are excited and looking forward to the opportunity finally to get the chance to fight after months of strenuous training. However, the truth of the matter is that not all soldiers want to go to war. So the question is what happens when one of these solider gets cold feet and decides that he does not want to fight and possibly die for the glory of the Empire? This objection to fighting is the basis of the film. Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) resigns his commission, refuses to fight, and is given four white feathers. The film does not go into the detail the significance of the white feathers other than they are symbols of cowardice. Why are the British really in the Sudan? The reason for them being there is not discussed in the film. Also, who are the Mahdi and why is General Gordon going to Khartoum to fight them? And finally, how accurate is this film in portraying the actual historical facts of this period of time?

The basic plot of the movie centers on Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) who is a young British Officer of the Royal Cumbrians and the son of a famous general who is also in the infantry. When Feversham learns that his regiment is being sent to the Sudan to rescue the British General, Charles Gordon, and his troops, he resigns his commission from the army. He states that he never really wanted to be in the army in the first place and is afraid that he might be killed or injured and then loses the love of his life Ethne Eustace (Kate Hudson). Harry’s decision to quit the army infuriates his father who disowns him and then labels him a coward. His friends and his fiancee present him with four white feathers which are the symbols of cowardice. Harry is now a disgrace to almost all of the people who know him. After Harry’s friends are sent on their way to the Sudan he begins to question his decision. He realizes that he is losing his friends, father and more importantly his girl and because of this he is now set on restoring his honor and reclaiming his manhood. He decides to travel to the Sudan undercover, find his friends, and redeem himself in combat. This, he believes will restore his honor and hopefully win back his girl.

When Harry arrives in Sudan he enlists the help of a slave trader to guide him through the desert. On the trip the slaves rise up and kill the slave trader, leaving Harry without a guide or a means of crossing the vast desert. Harry is now on his camel. A lone black Sudanese warrior finds Harry who is now unconscious from the heat. Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou) befriends Harry and nurses him to health and teaches him how to blend in with the enemy. Abou is now his faithful servant, guide, and translator. Feversham tries to warn the British troops of an upcoming attack by sending Abou to them to deliver a warning. The British think that Abou is a spy and tie him up and whip him. When the Mahdish rebels pull a surprise attack on the soldiers the famous British square is broken and the British lose the battle of Abu Klea. Following the battle Harry saves his friend who has been blinded by a misfire in battle. Harry then travels to a rebel prison in Omdurman, gets captured, and with the help of Abou, breaks himself and the soldier out of the prison. Harry returns home to England a hero and wins back the admiration of his father, friends, and the girl he loves. Abou is last seen walking off into the desert alone.

While this is a good storyline there are many inaccuracies and holes in the plot. The story tells little of the significance of the white feather other than the fact that it is a symbol of cowardice. The story tells little of the significance of how the white feather gained much of its notoriety during a later period to time. The symbol comes from the sport of cockfighting and the belief that any rooster with a white tail feather is of inferior breed and therefore a poor fighter. Although, the white feather is the traditional symbol of cowardice among the British army and the countries under the British Empire, it became a much more significant emblem during World War I. “The Order of the White Feather” organized in 1914 by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald encouraged women to give out feathers to young men who had not joined the British Army. The practice of awarding the white feather often got out of hand. One young woman remembers her father being given a feather on his way home from work. Her father was no coward and only stayed home to take care of his two children and his sick wife. After receiving the feather her father embarrassed soon enlisted in the army and his family was left on their own. Another example of how the symbol got out of hand occurred when a family man who had three small daughters, which exempted him from active duty, was turned down in 1914 because he was short-sighted. But in 1916, as he walked home from his office, a woman gave him the white feather (emblem of cowardice.) He enlisted the next day. She never got over the senselessness of his death. In her last years of life, her once fine brain so crippled by dementia that she could not remember his dreadful, useless death. She could still talk of his last leave, when he was so shell-shocked he could hardly speak and of her mother ironing his uniform every day in the vain hope of killing the lice. Stories like this and many others spark interest and bring attention and drama attention to the movie. The director of the movie The Four Feathers is able to use the symbol of cowardice to establish the fictitious character, Harry Feversham, and to give him a reason to overcome his fear and become a hero even though no such character existed.

The question of why are the British and General Gordon in the Sudan is not fully discussed within the movie The Four Feathers. The movie implies that the British troops are there for the good of the Empire and the Queen and that the troops are there to preserve England’s interests. The Sudan though was never part of the British Empire. In reality “one of the reasons for the British involvement was to eradicate the slave and ivory trade and maintain its influence in the area. The capital city of Khartoum was built upon the twin evils of slavery and the ivory trade. By the time General Gordon went to Sudan seven out of every eight black men in the country were slaves.” General Gordon set many slaves free but was then faced with the great rebellion led by the Mahdi Muslim slave traders. Although Gordon was ordered to leave the country he stayed and was later trapped in the city of Khartoum. On January 26, 1885 the Mahdi rebels broke into the city killing Gordon and many other defenders. According to the movie Harry’s friends were then sent to Sudan to rescue Gordon but they arrived a few days too late. Although the movie The Four Feathers shows the tremendous enthusiasm of the natives for the British forces sent it to relieve General Gordon, it does not mention the fact that the reason for this local support was based on the British anti-slavery stand.

The eradication of the slave and ivory trade was not the only reason the British were interested in the Sudan. The Suez Canal was opened in Egypt and allowed water transportation between Europe and Asia without navigating around Africa or carrying goods or supplies across the hot desert to the Red Sea. Therefore, the Sudan became a point of interest to the British with her shipping industry and massive navy and the importance of the new trade route to India. “In 1881 the Egyptian province of Sudan rose up in rebellion under the leadership of Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed, a figure revered by his people as both a mystic and holy leader.” Mahdi and his followers were rebelling against the Egyptian rule and the foreign influence in the area. In a short period of time the Mahdi’s force grew to over 40,000 soldiers. The Mahdi slaughtered several Egyptian military columns. The movie version of this fighting shows the Mahdi killing British soldiers and taking the dead soldiers red coats and supplies. The British were concerned that they might lose influence in the area and Gordon was sent into Khartoum. The British public demanded a group be sent to support the popular general. “With a force of 7,000 men General Wolsey was sent to the Sudan. Gen. Wolsey devised a plan to divide his forces into two groups. The larger group, the river column, would travel down the river Nile. The smaller contingent, the desert column, would cross the vast desert. The desert column was a special force of soldiers selected from fourteen different regiments. This was one of the first specialist force units in British history.” These men, The Camel Corp, would travel across the desert (on the backs of camels). The movie The Four Feathers implies that the members of Harry’s regiment and his friends were part of this unit. The movie again fails in consistency as it shows the soldiers riding camels in one scene and then riding horses in another. There is no mention of the fact that most of the soldiers had a hard time riding the unusual camel because they had received no training in the type of transportation.

The accountability of the film again comes into question during the battle that takes place between the British troops and the rebels. The soldiers travel across the desert to the city of Khartoum to rescue General Gordon and his troops. On route to the city the British soldiers are intercepted by a large contingent of Mahdi soldiers. The battle that occurs is the battle of Abu Klea. “When Mahdist rebels attack the regiment during the fighting, the British square formation is broken by the enemy and the British Forces are routed and flee. The young Feversham rescues Jack Durrance (who has just been blinded by a rifle misfire) during the battle.” The importance of the square is that “during the 18th century the great fear of the infantry was from the front, they could probably be driven back with gunfire. If the cavalry managed to attack from the flank or rear, the infantry could be cut down and slaughtered. The tactic that was devised to oppose a cavalry attack was the square. In this formation the infantry would draw up in a square with men on each side facing outwards. From whichever direction the cavalry attacked, they would be met by a hail of fire. The problem was that on the field of battle, the cavalry moved much faster than infantry. For the square to be effective, the infantry had to form the square at a moment’s notice.”(7) The tactical use of the square was a source of great pride to the British and her armies. During the actual battle of Abu Klea the square was formed and effectively used. The fight occurred January 17, 1885, at the city of Abu Klea, Sudan. During this battle 1,200 British desert column forces engage over 10,000 Mahdist rebels. The British form the famous square and as the square advances toward the enemy a gap opens up near a rear corner. These gaps allow the rebels to breech the square and inflict heavy casualties. The British were able to reform a square and win the battle. In the movie version of the conflict the square was broken and then battle was lost, which was not the case. “In reality the battle of Abu Klea was an overwhelming victory for the British troops. The small British Camel Corp defeated the Mahdi force of approximately 10,000 rebels inflicting around 1000 casualties.” In fact the British never lost a garrison or a major engagement in Sudan. Is it possible that the makers of the film confuse this battle with the battle in South Africa in which an enormous number of Zulu Warriors (battle of Isandlwana- 1879) wiped out a British regiment who form a British Square and fight to the last man? Did they try and draw from the popular movie Zulu Dawn to enhance their own production even though the story would not be historically factual?

Although this is not a story about a holy war, the underlying theme of religion is evident throughout the movie, The Four Feathers. It is the same old story of unrest between the Christians and the Muslims. The English soldiers are for the most part Christians and the rebels are obviously Muslim. The possibility of religious understanding is there though it is not really developed in the movie. The religious references made in the movie are in fact confusing. For example, the Sudan is one of the oldest communities of Christianity in Africa. For thousands of years Christianity has been the majority religion of Northern Sudan. The Christians of northern Sudan has resisted, for nine centuries, the expansion of Islam by defeating the Muslim armies and sending them back to Egypt. One of the central characters of the story, Abou, is depicted as a Muslim. If Abou is truly Muslim why does he not support the Muslim rebels which would seem logical considering the devout Islamic beliefs? Also Abou makes numerous references to God but never mentions Allah. However, in another scene Abou is seen praying to the east towards Mecca in the traditional Muslim fashion. Is he Muslim or Christian? This is not consistent: since the country has a strong Christian influences, why not represent the strong the Black Christians of the area through the role of Abou?

The numerous historical inaccuracies of this film are evident and frequent. The battle of Abu Klea, as stated earlier, was a victory and not a defeat for the British. The Royal Cumbrians depicted in the movie did not exist, it was a make believe regiment with a British sounding name. The regiment was the Camel Corps and they did not exist; it was a make believe regiment with a British sounding name. The regiment was The Camel Corps and they did not wear red coats. Nor did the Muslim army dress in the English red coats to trick the British at the battle of Abu Klea. The American audience, according to the filmmakers, will only identify with the British army if they are wearing red coats. It is also hard to believe that Heath Ledger could pass as an Arab no matter what type of thobe or ghutra he wore. The movie The Four Feathers, like many other movies, plays to the romance, heroism, and chivalry of the fictitious characters. It distorts the historical truth and manipulates the events to its own purpose, all in the name of entertainment. The basic theme of the movie that a young man is trying to prove that he is not a coward but a hero at heart is appealing and unique. Although many movies lose sight of the historical context when trying to impress and entice people to spend their hard earned money at the theater, The Four Feathers does have some good qualities. The film effectively portrays the dangers that existed in the Sudan during the time period and it also shows the dedication and courage of the British troops sent to the hostile environment. Some of the desert settings are truly beautiful and the English countryside and architecture are also impressive. In the end the film fails to nail the love story and the battle scenes are exciting but confusing as you are not sure what is happening. You also realize that again the Muslims and the Christians do not get along even though you are not sure why.