Djimon Hounsou has been an astonishing onscreen presence since he cavorted on the beach with Janet Jackson in the video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” While he was not the dancer with his hands on her (that was the white guy), Hounsou’s performance was the memorable one. It was yet another turning point for the Benin-born Hounsou, whose life might be described as a long series of same. Having spent some time homeless in Paris before he started modeling for Thierry Mugler, caught Madonna’s eye, and went on make music videos and appear in films, notably, as the slave Cinque in Spielberg’s Amistad, whose gallant, tentatively articulated demand, “Give us free,” encourages the white folks to get a clue.
In Gladiator, Hounsou performs a similar service, as a slave who helps Russell Crowe to cross over with dignity. And now, yet again, he’s playing a noble black man. In Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers, he plays Abou Fatma, whose inadvertent service to Queen Victoria’s army in Sudan includes teaching a young white officer, Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), to become a better man. He finds Harry half-dead in the desert and saves him, then helps him go undercover as a “native.” Why, asks Harry, is Abou helping him, a total stranger and an Englishman to boot? Because, answers his savior, “God put you in my way. I have no choice.”
God appears to have little to do with it, though a movie-contrived lack of choice certainly rings true. Harry ostensibly arrives in the Sudan by his own devices, though it’s true that his precise means of travel and finances remain unknown and frankly, unimaginable. Still, he gets there, with a mission in mind, a mission more selfish than selfless. But that’s rather the norm in his world, Imperial Britain. As The Four Feathers‘ opening epigraph elucidates, in 1884 (a generic year here, as the film doesn’t adhere to history), a quarter of the earth’s surface belongs to the Empire, which plunders and exploits its resources for all they were worth. These resources include slave labor as well as soldiers assigned to ensure and police such labor — in other words, this Empire, like all others, is built on blood and bodies. And yet somehow, it keeps getting celebrated in films and novels.
The Four Feathers is based on A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel, which also served as the foundation for six previous films, all esteeming the passage of boys into men through war. And you might imagine this as provocative subject matter for director Kapur, who made The Bandit Queen, about the struggles of a beloved and ferocious Indian rebel, and Elizabeth, a brutal critique of imperial politics as it destroys royal insiders as well as the so-called rabble.
But The Four Feathers is not revisionist history. It’s alarmingly short-sighted fiction, offering only occasional glimpses of the imperial project’s fundamental viciousness and ignorance. For instance, a British soldier about to head into battle prays to his God, presuming his superior right to beat down the heathens, is juxtaposed with a group of praying Mahdis, the “enemy” also looking for guidance and assuming righteousness. The opportunity for comparison is fleeting: the white boy’s prayers are plaintive, his voice trembling so that his fear is sympathetic, and the Mahdis are presented en masse, without translation for an English-speaking audience, without individual faces with whom to identify.
It’s still possible to imagine the emotional, political, and cultural complications roiling about just off camera. But the repeatedly posits the Brits’ rather dogged, notably limited point of view. They’re introduced as fine young lads, playing football at officers’ school, loving life. Harry and his best friend Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) compete vaguely for the attentions of Ethne (Kate Hudson), but she’s pretty set on Harry. When time comes for the young men to ship off to war in the Sudan, Harry gets cold feet, thinking he’d rather live out his days with Ethne, and maybe this whole Empire business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: “Sometimes I wonder,” he confesses to a dumbfounded Jack, “What a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere has to do with her Majesty the Queen.”
Harry’s decision to give up his commission causes an enormous ruckus among his friends and family: his army general father (Tim Pigott-Smith) disowns him, and his three best friends (Michael Sheen, Kris Marshall, Rupert Penry-Jones), plus his girl, all call him a coward and to mark the designation, give him four white feathers in a box. Only Jack stands by him, a change from the original text, which, like the addition of Abou, grants Harry considerable moral wiggle room. Harry feels shamed and, once his hair’s grown out a little so he can look shabby and forlorn, starts wondering what he might do redeem himself, to feel like a man and not a yellow-livered scallywag.
Aha, he thinks, he’ll head off to the Sudan and go undercover in robes and beard, track down his buddies and, after saving their lives (however temporarily), give each back his feather. The illogic of the tale itself has grounds in cultural fantasies of dominion and rectitude, amply embodied here by Harry, his soldier pals, and his irritating fiancée Ethne. While Harry is making his way toward his fellows, unbeknownst to them, Jack is making speeches about the definitive brilliance of their war: “We must rout the enemy and preserve the dignity of our Empire.” That the “enemy” remains faceless through most of the film allows you to feel nervous when the Mahdis do come up with their own rout (a horrific battle where they come at the red-coated, inexperienced Brits from four sides; shot in frantic close-ups and from a long overhead shot, the battle is sickening, but hardly reflects the numbers according to history — the Mahdis lost many more lives than their occupying forces).
While trying to cross the “godforsaken desert,” Harry has trouble with his guide, a French pimp and people-trader who instructs him in the natives’ lack of intelligence and emotional sensibility. When the natives he’s taking to market rise up and smash his head with a rock, they spare Harry because he’s saved one of them from the Frenchman the day before. Left alone with his camel, there’s no way the soft upscale boy will make it. At this point, Abou makes his first fortuitous appearance, so magnificent hat the frame can’t begin to contain him.
Still, and like other Magical Negroes before him, Abou has no life, no friends or family, no desire other than to serve his newfound buddy-in-need. When Harry tells him his own story and motives (“I am responsible to my friend”), Abou can only shake his head in wonder, insisting their recklessness and cruelty are not his fault and he can movie on without guilt. But then he proceeds to be responsible for Harry, who is hardly his friend. And when Harry is wounded and captured, and so unable to carry an important message to the Brits, Abou agrees to do so, only to be called out as a spy by the terrified, self-interested, racist Brits, then tied to a post and whipped. Harry later confronts one of the perpetrators when returning his feather, complaining that he shouldn’t have whipped his “friend.”
But Harry is not Abou’s friend, only his student and beneficiary. Friendship does appear to be a key theme here, but it’s less a passionate commitment than a ritual duty, based on expectation rather than generosity. When Jack speechifies back home about the “true” significance of war (we don’t fight for flags or ideas, but for “the man on our left and the man on our right”), the wealthy white people listening to him — in Church — dab at their eyes and recall their dearly departed. The camera cuts to a last long view of Abou, walking across the dunes, with no man anywhere near him. He’s noble, all right, but he’s also alone. Then again, this may be the film’s most eloquent illustration of what Empire is all about: the ability to define a self, in relation to others, to order existence with language and materials. Those in power speak, and “others” do not.