In the late 1800s, the British Empire ruled the civilized world. Proper, proud and convinced that their race was God’s instrument for divine dominion, the men serving the crown valued nothing more than valor. During a rugby match in London, we meet a number of them—ruddy-cheeked young soldiers who’ve yet to see action. Harry is a fair-haired lad with a secret. He is poised to announce his engagement to the lovely Ethne who, like himself, is a child of military pomp and circumstance. Their officer fathers are much more excited about the pending marriage than Jack, a close friend and compatriot of Harry’s who can’t help but be a bit jealous. As it turns out, the affairs of the moment are of little consequence. Soon all of their lives will be changed forever.
In a cruel twist of fate, Harry, Jack and their buddies learn that their regiment will be deployed to Sudan. Muslim warriors (Sudanese rebels called the Madhi) have overrun a British outpost, killing every last man. It’s time to send more troops. But Harry doesn’t have the stomach for it. He resigns his commission. Instead of downshifting seamlessly into civilian life with his fiancée, he finds himself a social outcast. His father disowns him. His bride-to-be dumps him. And three of Harry’s friends castigate him by sending him white feathers symbolic of cowardice. Ethne gives him the titular fourth. The regiment heads to Sudan without Harry, but he soon does an about-face and treks across the desert alone in search of his comrades in arms. Along the way he meets a stout-hearted mercenary warrior named Abou who joins Harry on his quest. In the months that follow, Harry puts everything at risk for his friends, saving lives and finding personal redemption in the process.
positive elements: Throughout the film, noble characters act bravely and sacrificially for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. The heroes in this film don’t rush to take credit for their deeds; kindness and loyalty are their own reward. It is considered honorable to give one’s life for God and country, but even more so for one another ("We fight for the man on our left. We fight for the man on our right"). When asked when he will feel he has done enough to serve his friends, Harry replies, "It’s never enough." Such selfless commitment is seen quite often onscreen. When several men are quick to brand Harry a coward, Jack refuses to do so. He also shows great restraint before eventually being forced to shoot a lone gunman. Harry intervenes to protect a slave being beaten, and is later rewarded with mercy when the slaves revolt. Abou subjects himself to great risk and pain for Harry and, by extension, Harry’s countrymen. Harry refuses to leave behind wounded or captured friends, even though his loyalty carries a heavy price. At the very end of the film, Jack repays Harry’s kindness with a selfless act of his own. Ethne asks Harry to forgive her for questioning his character, which he does. There are also quite a few reverent exchanges having to do with God and prayer.
spiritual content: Characters refer to God (the Father) and talk with Him frequently. The British soldiers earnestly invoke His name. One in particular prays prior to battle, and asks God for forgiveness as he is forced to kill his enemies. Abou, while apparently not a Christian, is also a man of devout faith and sincere prayer (while probably Muslim, Abou’s theology isn’t detailed, but left ambiguous). He and Harry allude to "God’s will" and their responsibility to a higher power. When Harry asks why Abou is protecting him, the native replies, "God put you in my way. I had no choice." The British are vilified somewhat for being so presumptuous as to think they have the one true religion ("You come here trying to civilize them with your Christian values"). It is suggested that God takes away what we value most so that we don’t take it for granted.
sexual content: While camping out in the desert, a pair of slaves appear to be engaged in sex (shown only from the shoulders up, but still disappointing). There’s a brief shot of an immodest statue. Viewers glimpse bare backsides in an early locker-room scene. A slave-trader mentions that he deals in prostitutes.
violent content: The bone-crunching blows delivered during the opening rugby match are but a small taste of the combat to follow. While not unduly graphic, the war brutality is significant. People are shot, run through with bayonets, severely beaten, slashed with swords, etc. There’s an extremely high body count. A man gets mowed down by a runaway cannon. A man’s face is seriously burned and scarred when his gun misfires. A cruel Egyptian slave-driver is found dead, his throat cut. Another evil man beats his slaves—until one night they beat him to death. After prolonged hand-to-hand engagement, Harry stabs a foe in the chest with an animal bone. Piles of dead bodies show up. Dead soldiers are undressed and left in the desert to become food for jackals and vultures. Men are shown hanging from gallows.
crude or profane language: Brits use the expression "bloody" five times, but aside from that the only language that would give families pause might be a couple uses of "for god’s sake."
drug and alcohol content: Alcohol flows at a party and at a posh British club, and is consumed by soldiers. Abou gives the enslaved Harry a drug designed to make him and Trench appear dead so that they’ll be dumped outside the city limits and left to rot (Trench isn’t in on the plan and takes the "poison" thinking he’s committing suicide).
other negative elements: While not a moral issue per se, a cringe-inducing moment finds Harry, wandering in the desert and desperate for fluid, piercing the side of his camel and drinking the blood.
conclusion: Unsettling war violence notwithstanding, The Four Feathers is an extremely moral movie for mature audiences. Lessons in loyalty, friendship, courage, duty and honor are central to the story. I especially enjoyed seeing how Harry and Jack silently respected one another’s ties with Ethne. No manipulation. No competition. Each was saddened and a bit jealous when he was on the outside looking in, but personal feelings never led to resentment or cut-throat romantic ambition (a huge contrast to the scheming of Mondego in The Count of Monte Cristo).
There’s also a refreshing amount of positive spiritual content here. One might assume that it’s simply because the film is set in the late 1800s. Not so. Tempted to take this reverence for granted, I rented the 1939 original starring John Clements and Ralph Richardson, and found virtually nothing of spiritual substance. Imagine that, a remake that’s more spiritual than its predecessor made during Hollywood’s Golden Age! In fact, this film improves on the earlier version in a number of ways. The cinematography is very good, capturing the period and mood of both civilized England and the parched desert. If the film lacks anything, it is sufficient background on the principle players so that they come alive as more than just cogs in the storytelling machine. Unfortunately, we care about these people because we know we’re supposed to, not because we’ve connected with them at a deeper level. The narrative lacks fluidity as well, with some moments begging questions the filmmakers don’t bother to answer clearly or logically. Even so, The Four Feathers is a story worth retelling, and this version does a decent job on a number of levels.