The Four Feathers (2002)




Director:     Shekhar Kapur.

Starring:     Heath Ledger (Harry Faversham),     Kate Hudson (Ethne),     Wes Bentley (Jack Durrance),     Djimon Hounsou (Abou Fatma),     Mohamed Bouich (Sudanese Storyteller),     Campbell Brown (Dervish Ansar), Daniel Caltagirone (Gustave),     James Cosmo (Col. Sutch),     Andy Coumbe (Colonel Other Regiment),    Angela Douglas (Aunt Mary),     Karim Doukkali (Egyptian Orderly),     Lucy Gordon (Isabelle),     Megan Hall (Millie),     James Hillier (Drunken Corporal),     Nick Holder (British Lion),     Alex Jennings (Colonel Hamilton)

 man declared a coward has to go to Sudan to fight Mahdi's forces to prove he is not a coward


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

1884.  In the Victorian Age the symbol of the disgrace from cowardice was indicated by a white feather. 

A group of  military men are playing an extra-tough game of rugby.  This is in contrast to the very controlled behavior of the new lieutenants at a fancy military ball.  A young, happy blond woman named Ethne flirts playfully with lieutenants Harry Faversham and his friend Jack.  But it is Harry who she kisses, which makes Jack very jealous.  Harry's father, the General, gets Ethne's last dance since he outranks his son.  The General mentions that Ethne's father gave his life for his country.  Later the General leads a toast to the military outfit, the Royal Cumbrians. 

News soon arrives that the Mahdi has attacked British forces in the Sudan.   They were slaughtered to a man.  The unit will ship out within a week.  This makes Harry very apprehensive.  He is worried about fighting in the Sudan.  He is so worried that he tells the commandant:  "I wish to resign my commission."   The commandant thinks it's a joke or the ranting of a confused young man, but Harry insists that he will resign.  Harry's superior officer then tells him to "Please leave these barracks immediately."

It does not take long before almost everyone knows that "Harry's resigned."  Tom Willoughby says:  "It means he's a coward."  But Jack refuses to believe that Harry has resigned.  Jack says:  "He'll be here."

A messenger delivers a small package to Harry.  Inside a wallet-like container Harry finds four white feathers.  He knows who sent at least three of the feathers:  Trent, Willoughby and Castleton.  He tells Ethne:  "I've left the army."  Ethne does not understand why he would quit the army.  He tells her that it has nothing to do with her.  He never wanted to join the army.  He only did it to please his father.  Ethne tells him to go back to the barracks before it is too late.  He refuses.  She tells him:  "Then you are a coward." 

Harry's unit marches down the street on horseback.  In the crowd Harry watches them.  Harry tries to talk with his father, but dad tells him:  "I don't know you."  Later Harry looks at the casualty list following the British attack on the city of Korti. 

A Sudanese gunman fires on the lieutenants of the Royal Cumbrians while they are at a drinking hole.  The gunman kills one lieutenant and then runs.  The lieutenants give chase.  They finally corner the man.  They tell him repeatedly to put the gun down, but the man refuses.  He slowly loads his rifle and starts to point it at the lieutenant in charge.  The lieutenant is forced to shoot and kill the man. 

Back in England Harry has all his maps out and is studying the terrain of Sudan.  He is planning to go to the Sudan.  He argues that "Unless I do something, this is how people will always remember me and how I will remember myself."  And what's worse, he now knows that Ethne was the source of the fourth white feather.  He writes a good-bye letter to Ethne saying:  "Forgive me all the shame I have caused you."  Harry gets to the Sudan, but he is still a long way from the British camp at Korti.  He pays a man a lot of money to take him to the camp. 

Jack has proved quite the hero and so he is to be sent back to London to do a public relations campaign.  Jack does not want to leave the Sudan, but he is forced to go. 

Harry travels with a caravan of native prostitutes headed to service the British army.  The women do not like the caravan leader and one night with help from some men they kill the leader.  Harry is also going to be killed, but the prostitute who Harry saved from a beating tells Harry's assailant to leave the white man alone.  The next morning Harry awakens all alone with a bloody head, but at least he is alive.  He is able to get on a camel and ride. 

Ethne watches Jack give a speech to promote the military in Sudan.  After the speech she talks with Jack.  She asks if he has heard from Harry.  He has not.  She comments:  "I can't forgive myself."  She says she made a stupid mistake and wonders if she will have to pay for it for the rest of her life.  She adds:  "I loved him."  But "He came to me and I turned him away." 

An exhausted Harry falls from his camel. A tribesman named Abou saves Harry.  Abou then is able to take Harry to Camp Korti.  They both get jobs with the army as baggage porters.  Harry learns from one of the foremen that Harry is from a tribe of slaves.  Because of this Harry is subject to abuse from the foremen who use the whip on him.  (Abou later kills the worst of his tormentors.)

Ethne starts writing to Jack. 

The other porters are very suspicious of Harry.  They believe that he is a British spy.  Abou tells Harry that he at one time was a scout for General Hicks.  He also warns him about the other porters.  Harry asks him why he warned him about the other porters.  He just says:  "I'm a good soldier.  I will protect you."

Jack reads the letter from Ethne to his fellow officers.  He then tells them that he is going to ask Ethne to marry him.  At first the men are shocked and silent.  They thought that Ethne was going to marry Harry, not Jack.  But the other officers soon recover and congratulate Jack. 

Three of the porters desert and go by camel to tell the Mahdi forces of the presence of the British in the area.  Harry and Abou follow them.  The British are warned about the deserters and they start shooting at Harry and Abou.  Then one of the officers recognizes Harry and calls for a cease firing.  Camping at night Abou asks Harry if he is a deserter.  Harry responds:  "Something like that."  Why?  "Mostly I was afraid."  This makes Abou laugh and he tells Harry that a man who would cross the wide desert alone is not a coward.  Harry, in turn, wants to know why Abou saved him.  Abou says:  "God put you in my way.  I have no choice." 

Harry and Abou followed the deserters all the way to the fortress of Abou Clea.  They wonder why the deserters would go to the fort, because it is held by the British.  They can see the red coats of the British soldiers.  But as Harry and Abou near the fort, they realize that all the troops are the Mahdi's men.    Many of these men are wearing the uniforms of the dead British soldiers.  One of the Mahdi's soldiers grabs Harry, while another holds Abou back.  Harry is afraid he will be killed, but no, he is only given a British red coat and white helmet.  Harry reunites with Abou and tells him to get back to the British army and tell them what has happened. 

The British army heads toward the fortress of Abou Clea.  They come across a number of dead and mutilated British soldiers.  Then the Egyptians capture an enemy spy.  Tom Willoughby starts to interview the "spy" Abou.  He does not believe Abou's story even though he is advised by his fellow officers that Abou might be telling the truth.  They also tell him that he should tell Colonel Hamilton, but Willoughby rejects the suggestion. 

The Mahdi forces start to attack.  Colonel Hamilton has his men form a square with the animals and supply wagon in the center of the square.  The square does well at first, but it starts to wear thin as they begin to be attacked from all four sides.  They see the British cavalry coming to the rescue, but it turns out that they are the Mahdi's men wearing the British red coats.  Harry  is with the now charging cavalry.  Colonel Hamilton is shot and dies.  In the fighting Jack goes to fire his rifle and it backfires in his face and he goes down in extreme pain.   Harry is able to save Jack by throwing his body over him and fighting off all comers.  The British are forced to retreat.  Harry, Jack and Abou are the only ones left alive in their section of the battlefield.  Harry and Abou take Jack to a safe place.  Harry finds a great many letters from Ethne to Jack.  He is very upset when he reads some of the letters.  He tells Abou:  "I was a fool to think I could ever come back home."     When Jack awakens he shouts that he is blind.  About tells Harry to help his friend.  Harry replies:  "My friend knows how to help himself."

Ethne comes to visit Jack.  She discovers that he is blind.  Ethne then visits Harry's father, the General.  She tells him that Jack has asked her to marry him.  So she wants to know if he has heard from Harry.  No, the General has not heard from his son. 

Tom Willoughby comes to speak with Jack.  He tells Jack that he saw Harry in the Sudan.  He also tells Jack that they lost more men in the retreat than in the battle itself.  Harry had come to see him after the battle and told him:  "I sent a man to warn you.  You should have listened."  Tom had replied:  "I didn't know it was you."   Harry then returned to Tom one of the white feathers of cowardice.  Jack tells Tom that he should not tell Ethne about this until he is very sure it was Harry. 

Harry now wants to save another of the men who gave him a white feather; a man named Trent.  Harry asks Abou to help him save Trent, who is now in a Mahdi prison.  Abou tells him:  "You have done enough."   But Harry will not rest.  So Abou helps Harry get caught by the Mahdi forces.  Harry is thrown into a prison that is terribly over-crowded with prisoners.   Harry starts yelling for Trent.  Trent makes his way to Harry and grabs him.  Harry explains why he came and Trent says:  "All this way for a feather?"  Abou sees Harry in prison.  He makes a poison for Harry to use.  Trent is about to give up when Harry has Trent and himself drink the poison that will put them out temporarily.  The bodies of the supposedly dead Trent and Harry are taken out and thrown into the death pits.  When one of the top supervisors of the prisoners is told that both of his British prisoners died on the same day, he is immediately suspicious.  He grabs three men and they head out to the death pits to check on Harry and Trent. 

When the supervisor and his men arrive at the pits, they can see Abou in the distance carrying Harry and Trent away via a camel.  Abou sees the men chasing him and he quickly gets his two prisoners into some mountains. Abou only has one bullet left for his rifle.  Harry breaks off from the two men to lead their hunters away from them.  As the four approach Harry, he is able to shoot and kill one of the men.  The supervisor then goes after Harry, while the two other men chase Abou and Trent.  Harry is soon caught and starts receiving a very vicious beating.  Abou is able to hide in the sand and surprise his two pursuers and kill them both.  He then goes to try to help Harry.  But Harry is able to save himself.  He is able to grab a large conch like shell and use it as a knife to stab the supervisor in the gut over and over again.  The supervisor dies.  Abou and Harry are reunited for a while.  But they soon have to leave each other as Harry wants to start for home.  About stay behind, content to go where God directs him. 

Harry appears before Ethne.  She takes her white feather back.  Ethne and Jack are engaged, but not married.  Harry asks her if Jack is happy and she says:  "I think he's happy."  Harry replies:  "He deserves to be.  So do you."  He looks a bit dejected and Ethne tries to comfort him:  "You'll meet someone soon."  Then Ethne takes Harry over to see Jack by himself.  Harry tells Jack that he came to thank him for sticking up for him when everyone was calling him a coward.  But Jack tells him:  "You don't owe me anything."  He then feels Harry's face as a way of recognizing him.   Jack suddenly realizes that it was Harry that saved him during the battle in which he was blinded. 

Jack gives a speech to his former unit with Ethne and Harry in attendance.  He toasts:  "To Castleton and all the others we left behind." 

Harry and his father reconcile.  And Harry and Ethne come together.  Answering a query from Ethne, Harry tells her:  "Now I have no choice, Ethne.  God put you in my way." 


Good action movie.  And good love story, although spiced with a bit of betrayal thrown in.  You should read a little of the history before watching the movie as there is not a lot of explanation of the historical events going on in the film.  There was so much action in the movie that I started to get tired of it and found myself wanting to fast forward through the fight scenes, but I stuck it out. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

The Turkiyah (1821-1885)

1820-1821  --  an Egyptian-Ottoman army took and then unified the northern portion of the Sudan.

1821-1885  --  the new government was known as the Turkiyah or Turkish regime. Egypt claimed all of today's Sudan.  But they could not establish effective control in the south. 

Southern Sudan was characterized by fragmented tribes.  The area was frequently attacked by slave traders who would grab people.

1870s  --  Europeans fought against the slave trade.  This actually had the negative effect of causing an economic crisis in southern Sudan.  (This would then lead to the rise of Mahdist forces.)

Mahdism and condominium (1884-1898)

1881  --  Muhammad ibn Abdalla (1844-1885) was a religious leader who said he was the Mahdi ("guided one").  The Mahdi started to form a nationalist revolt.  His goal was to unify the tribes in western and central Sudan. His followers were known as "Ansars" ("followers").  The badly administered Ottoman-Egyptian dominance in Sudan helped the Mahdi's cause. 

1882  --  the Anglo-Egyptian War was won by the British.  This assured the continuance of the de facto British protectorate over Egypt. 

1884  --  the Mahdi chooses Omdurman (today a suburb of Khartoum in central Sudan) as the base of his operations.

The Egyptians hired British Major-General Charles George Gordon to be the interim governor-general of the Sudan. 

1884 (March 12) to 1885 (January 26)  --  the Battle or Siege of Khartoum.  Egyptian forces led by General Gordon and a Mahdist Sudanese army led by the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad were put under siege by the Mahdists.  The siege lasted ten months.  Tthe Mahdists finally broke into the city.  The entire garrison was killed.

1885 (January 26)  --  Khartoum falls accompanied by many massacres of the population of 50,000. 

1885 (June)  --  the Mahdi dies.

Khalifa Abdullah succeeded the Mahdi.  He began to expand into Ethiopia.

1898  --  an Anglo-Egyptian force under Lord Kitchener is sent to the Sudan. 

1898 (September 2) --  at the Battle of Omdurman British General Sir Horatio Kitchener defeats the Mahdi army of Abdullah al-Taashi, who had succeeded the self-proclaimed Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad.   There were three dead for Egypt and Britain and 1,000 killed for the Mahdi army. 

1899 (November 24)  --  Anglo-Egyptian troops under Lord Kitchener wiped out the last of the Mahdist armies under Muhammad Ahmad at the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat.   

1899  --  Sudan is proclaimed a condominium and placed under British-Egyptian administration. (But the British formulated the policies for the condominium.)


Note on weaponry.  The British were greatly aided by the Martini-Henry Rifle that could kill a man at 800 yards.  The average soldier could get off twelve shots in a minute.  Then they had the use of the Webley revolver (although there was no standard issue hand gun). 


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