“In reflecting the postcolonial sensibilities, rather than the imperialist enthusiasms, of the early twenty-first century, the film is very much a creature of its time.”
In a public lecture he gave in 1975 at the University of Massachusetts, where he was then a visiting professor, the Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe delivered a trenchant attack on what he saw as Joseph Conrad’s racist depiction of Africa and Africans in his 1902 novella Heart of Darkness (Achebe 169-81). In this lecture, Achebe argues that not only does Conrad disparage the humanity of his African protagonists by presenting them as barbaric savages, but that he does so in order to explore the effect of such barbarism on the consciousness of Europeans. For Achebe, Conrad uses Africa parasitically, treating it as a “setting and backdrop” (Achebe 176) on which to project a drama of fraught and troubled European identity.
Kapur retains all of the central elements of the novel’s original plot. Like Mason’s novel, Kapur’s film tells of a young British army officer who resigns his commission after the fall of Khartoum, just as his regiment is due to be sent to the Sudan to fight the followers of Mohammed Ahmad (the so-called Mahdi), who is leading a religiously inspired resistance against the British. Three of Faversham’s fellow officers are so incensed by what they see as his dishonourable conduct that they each send him a white feather, a symbol of cowardice. Faversham’s shame is further compounded when his fiancé, Ethne (played by Kate Hudson), breaks off their engagement and gives him a white feather of her own. In secret he travels alone to the Sudan where, disguised as an Arab (in the novel he also disguises himself as a Greek merchant), he exposes himself to enormous physical hardship and great personal risk in order to rescue his one-time comrades from danger. Having finally exonerated himself of the charge of cowardice, Faversham returns each of the four feathers and marries Ethne. But while the film keeps in place the basic structure and events of the original story, it offers a powerful critique of the moral and political attitudes toward race and empire that remain unexamined in Mason’s novel. In part this is achieved through the portrayal of Faversham’s friendship with an African, Abou Fatma (played by Djimon Hounsou), a character whom Faversham first encounters in the Sudanese desert, and who assumes the role of Faversham’s guide, mentor, protector, and ultimately friend. However, before examining the implications of this interracial friendship and how it subverts the treatment of race in the original novel, I would like to consider the film’s opening sequence, which shows a group of young men — whom we subsequently come to recognise as Faversham and his fellow officers — playing a game of rugby. While this scene might appear to be incidental to the story — doing little more than establishing a setting and evoking a particular tone and mood — I will argue that it is subtly but self-consciously ideological in character, and that as such it provides a key to understanding the film’s engagement with the politics of race and empire.
There is no equivalent of the film’s opening scene in Mason’s original: the word “rugby” does not appear anywhere in the novel of The Four Feathers. But although this scene is the invention of Kapur and his screenwriters, Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, it “feels” authentic because it draws upon a long-established tradition of British fiction — going all the way back to Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) — which sees sport in general, and the game of rugby in particular, as a vehicle for both the development and formation of individual character, and the transmission — particularly to the children of the upper and middle classes — of established social norms and conventional moral values. Social and cultural historians of sport have noted that from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, rugby came to be regarded as an ethos as much as a form of recreation (Mangen, Stoddart, Holt 203-79, Collins). Because of its violent and aggressive nature, rugby was held to instil the “manly” virtues of courage, fortitude, and resilience, yet as a team game it also encouraged self-sacrifice and collective endeavour, as individual players were required to subordinate their own personal interests to the greater good of the team. Sport also reflected the social divisions of late Victorian society (rugby union was played at the public schools, the ancient universities, and amongst members of the traditional professions such as the law, the church and medicine — rugby league was popular in the industrial north, while association football [soccer] became a predominantly urban, working-class sport). So knowledge of rugby union and an ability to play the game tended to confer and confirm privileged social status, becoming as a result an unofficial badge of class.
So the imperialist culture of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century British sport provides a further rationale for Kapur’s inclusion of a game of rugby in the film’s opening sequence. Not only is it a game likely to have been played by the kind of youthful army officers who would have gone off to fight for the British Empire, but it can also be said to encapsulate the aggressive, militaristic, and chauvinistic values of the whole imperialistic endeavour. And it is this ideological element to rugby that Kapur highlights in his film. For what he depicts on screen appears less a conventional sporting contest and more a fierce and bloody ritual designed to initiate its participants into an elite warrior caste. The respectable spectators look on unperturbed from the touchline as the players attack one another with extraordinary savagery: faces are bloodied and bodies end up in a mangled heap on the ground. Kapur seems to imply that it is these British officers, and not the Africans whom they will shortly be sent to subjugate, who are the real barbarians, and it is only through this kind of ritualised initiation into violence that they will become inured to the brutality and inhumanity required of them in war. Kapur can therefore be thought of as subjecting the British to the same anthropological scrutiny that the British themselves had directed toward the subject peoples of their empire. This is further suggested by the musical score (composed by James Horner) that accompanies the scene. As the bodies of the players come in and out of focus, traditional Eastern musical motifs fade in and out, providing an auditory parallel to the visual action. The effect of this is dreamlike and hypnotic, but the use of such self-consciously exotic musical tropes also “orientalises” the figures on screen. Kapur would appear to be inviting the film’s predominantly Western audience to view the British — to view themselves in other words — as strange and “other.” The scene therefore implies that it is the British who are violent and warlike, and that the rites and customs of British society function in such a way as to desensitise their young people to the violence expected of them when serving their country overseas. In this opening scene, then, Kapur provides an aesthetic, and perhaps more importantly, a moral framework through which to understand the personal and political dimensions of the rest of the film.
Like A. E. W. Mason one hundred years before him, Kapur is clearly interested in telling a story about the personal development of a young British officer, and like Mason he projects that individual story onto the panoramic background provided by the British state’s military intervention in the Sudan. However, unlike Mason, Kapur refuses to take the actions of the British at their own valuation. While Mason’s novel does not question the morality of Britain’s involvement in the Sudan, in Kapur’s film, the increasing disquiet felt by Harry Faversham at the actions of the British becomes an index of his growing maturity and a sign of his developing moral — as opposed simply to physical — courage. In this sense, Kapur incorporates the film’s political agenda into its narrative of personal development: Faversham and — to a lesser extent — his erstwhile fellow officers are forced by the traumatic experience of war to confront their own prejudices and to acknowledge the autonomous humanity of the Africans they encounter. A particularly powerful instance of this occurs in a scene in which a British patrol, having just entered an unnamed Sudanese town from the surrounding desert, is attacked by a sniper. In what appears to be a self-conscious visual echo of Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), the soldiers chase the solitary gunman through a dense and complex labyrinth of passages and houses, eventually catching up with and confronting him in a courtyard. What follows is a psychological stand-off between one intrepid gunman and a group of well-armed but increasingly desperate soldiers who cannot comprehend the defiance of their lone adversary. Jack Durrance (played by Wes Bentley), the officer in command of the patrol, repeatedly calls on the man to put down his weapon, but despite the fact that the gunman is in full view of the British rifles that are trained against him, he does not comply. Rather, he is able to wrest control of the situation and dictate the terms of the encounter by slowly and deliberately reloading his gun and aiming it at his enemies. In so doing, he forces the hand of the British. The scene ends with tragic inevitability: Durrance shoots and kills his adversary, an act that in turn incites the local children to express their outrage at the British by pelting them with stones.
Of course, a criticism that could be levelled against the film in general and this scene in particular is that the process of moral and political education that Kapur charts is anachronistic. (How many British soldiers serving in the Sudan in the 1880s actually responded to the antagonism of the local population by questioning their own actions? Isn’t it more likely that the experience of violent conflict would have led to the strengthening rather than the weakening of racial prejudices and religious and cultural stereotypes?) In reflecting the postcolonial sensibilities, rather than the imperialist enthusiasms, of the early twenty-first century, the film is very much a creature of its time. (For instance, another contemporary film that brings a modern sensibility to bear on — in this case — a much earlier historical period is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven , which centres on a twelfth-century Christian knight [played by Orlando Bloom], who despite fighting to defend Jerusalem against the army of Saladin, has the political values and moral outlook of a twenty-first-century liberal.)
As this illustration suggests, there are obvious political problems associated with such an anachronistic approach to history. On the one hand, there is much to commend in Kapur’s idealism and optimism; as the film suggests, people can change; racial prejudices and hatreds can be overcome. The barriers that separate people are not insurmountable, and individuals from widely different religious, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds can learn to acknowledge and respect their common humanity. However, what we would now see as a laudable sense of hope and possibility must be tempered with the realisation that the potential for change in human affairs is often not realised. So while admirable in many respects, there is the danger that Kapur’s treatment of history might seem rather facile and his understanding of the human condition slightly glib. Although well intentioned, Kapur’s film is vulnerable to the accusation that it substitutes or at least confuses political fable for genuine history. And in so doing, it might be seen as attempting not only to efface the racism that underpinned Britain’s imperial policy, but also to downplay the entrenched racist attitudes of many of the individuals who served the British Empire.
As we might expect, the way in which Faversham relates to Abou Fatma in particular, and Africans in general, is presented in radically different terms in Kapur’s film, but as with Mason’s novel, linguistic competence in Arabic — or the lack of it — provides a helpful means of understanding the political as well as personal implications of their relationship. In the film, Faversham arrives in Egypt unable to speak Arabic, and throughout his time in Africa he appears only ever to acquire a smattering of words and phrases. So the 2002 cinematic incarnation of Harry Faversham has none of the confidence, authority, or autonomy of Mason’s original character from a century earlier. Ignorant of both the language and customs of the people amongst whom he is living — people who for the most part are extremely hostile to the British — he falls into a state of complete dependence on Fatma, a dependence that is as much emotional and psychological as practical. Therefore, what in the original novel is very much a conventionally hierarchical relationship, in which all the power and authority are vested with the figure of the colonial European, becomes in the film something very different. For his early twenty-first-century cinema audience, Kapur depicts an emotional connection between the two men that is held together by mutual respect and friendship rather than a traditional master-servant relationship.
In his treatment of the friendship of Harry Faversham and Abou Fatma, then, Kapur has made a strenuous effort to purge the original story of its racist elements and to reimagine their relationship in idealised, almost utopian terms. The one-time servant now fulfils the role of friend and mentor while the resourceful and self-reliant master is newly conceived of as physically and emotionally vulnerable, and hopelessly out of his depth in a strange and unfamiliar land. Indeed, such is the transformation that Kapur works on the dynamic of this relationship that Fatma almost comes to assume the role of Faversham’s spiritual guide, as it is his respect for and admiration of Fatma that prompts Faversham finally to reject the values and ideology of imperialist Victorian society. Therefore, from the perspective of the film’s early twenty-first-century audience, Fatma functions as something of a catalyst for the narrative — he helps to liberate Faversham from the metaphorical shackles of bigotry and prejudice that had formerly imprisoned him in a state of stunted ignorance.
Of course, while the film’s rejection of the values of empire is warmly to be welcomed, as I have already suggested, there are problems with such a representation of the politics of colonialism. It could be argued that the film seriously distorts history and presents its audience with a rather comforting, almost Disneyfied version of the British Empire. The film could therefore be said to be letting the British off the hook, as it would seem to imply that all those involved in the Sudanese campaign are so chastened by their experiences that they are resolved to amend their ways in the future. The film concludes with two final images: the first showing Harry Faversham and his fiancé, Ethne, walking hand in hand by the river Thames, the second showing Abou Fatma riding a camel across the desert. The implication is that there is an unbreakable bond uniting these two friends despite the thousands of miles that separate them. It provides an emotionally stirring conclusion to the film, but again it could be viewed as offering a rather saccharine and fundamentally misleading image of the reality of empire. And perhaps what these contradictory reflections on Kapur’s film highlight is the fact that, however politically literate and morally well intentioned, no modern director can avoid confronting insoluble difficulties when adapting a novel such as The Four Feathers that is so deeply implicated in the fundamentally different moral and political values of its time.
Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” reprinted in Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 169-181.
Collins. A Social History of English Rugby Union. London: Routledge, 2009.
Philip French, “Review of The Four Feathers,” The Observer, Sunday 20 July 2003.
Gerald Graff, “Teaching the Politics of Heart of Darkness,” reprinted in Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 182-188.
Robert Holt. Sport and the British: A Modern History. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Thomas Hughes. Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Ed. Andrew Sanders. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Derek Malcolm “Review of The Four Feathers,” The Guardian, Tuesday 12 November 2002.
J. A. Mangen. The Games Ethic and Imperialism: Aspects of the Diffusion of an Ideal. London: Viking, 1986.
A. E. W. Mason. The Four Feathers. Ed. Gary Hoppenstand. London & New York: Penguin, 2001.
Caryl Phillips, “Was Joseph Conrad Really a Racist?,” reprinted in Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 200-208.
Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978). London: Penguin, 2003.
Brian Stoddart. “Sport, Cultural Imperialism, and Colonial Response to the British Empire.”Comparative Studies in Society and History 30. 1988, pp. 649-673.
Ginette Vincendeau. Ed. Film/Literature/Heritage: A Sight & Sound Reader. London. BFI Publishing, 2001.
- Kapur’s film is the seventh screen adaptation of Mason’s novel to date. Its best-known predecessor is Zoltan Korda’s 1939 version, produced by Alexander Korda, the director’s brother. [↩]