Long ago in Hollywood, Technicolor costume epics were money in the bank and chicken on Sunday. Not that Gone With the Wind or The Adventures of Robin Hood are imitable, but that never stopped other directors from trying to imitate them. What’s more, they still do it, albeit in their own maladroit fashion. I doubt if many people under 30 know who Clark Gable and Errol Flynn were, but even in the dumbed-down world of postmodern mass culture, every young filmmaker remembers Titanic (the movie, not the ship). And for all their devotion to the here, now, and hip, quite a few of them like to take the Wayback Machine out for an occasional spin, so long as they don’t see anything too politically incorrect on the way back.
Shekhar Kapur’s remake of The Four Feathers is a regrettable case in point. A.E.W. Mason’s stiff-upper-lip swashbuckler, the story of young Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a British soldier accused of cowardice who redeems himself by stalwartly facing death in the Sudan, has been filmed six times. Unlike its predecessors, though, this version is the work of a director who is palpably uncomfortable with Mason’s Victorian values. To render them safe for consumption by the kind of people who don’t use the word “niggardly,” Kapur and screenwriters Michael Schiffer and
Hossein Amini have done a clumsy job of plastic surgery on Mason’s novel, inserting megadoses of moral equivalency wherever possible. I can’t remember the last time I saw anything so heavy-handed as the scene in which Kapur crosscuts between the British and their African enemies as they both pray before going into battle—I had to stop myself from yelling “Duh, we get it already!” at the screen.
Believe it or not, I have read a half-dozen reviews of The Four Feathers whose authors claim it is not a PC remake of the 1939 version. Says Roger Ebert, that infallible guide to conventional cinematic wisdom:
I do not require Kapur to be a revisionist anti-imperialist; it’s just that I don’t expect a director born in India to be quite so fond of the British Empire…. The characters are so feckless, the coincidences so blatant and the movie so innocent of any doubts about the White Man’s Burden that Kipling could have written it—although if he had, there would have been deeper psychology and better roles for the locals.
Not that I recommend it, but you really have to watch The Four Feathers, in which the British are made out to be arrogant, blundering believers in a Christianity less muscular than muscle-headed, to see how completely Ebert has missed Kapur’s point. And while it is well within the realm of possibility that the British were idiots, to portray them as such in a large-scale costume epic is a fatal dramatic miscalculation, if only because the scale of The Four Feathers is simply too large to make that kind of subtlety feasible. Some ambiguity is permissible in an epic (Rhett Butler is not exactly a gentleman), but if you’re not sure who the good guys were when the smoke finally clears, you won’t go home happy.
That isn’t the only thing wrong with The Four Feathers, though it’s the worst thing. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-Between. Those differences are what make the historical movie so seductive a genre—but only if they go deeper than decor. The flashy cinematography of The Four Feathers, for instance, is not literally anachronistic (they weren’t making movies of any kind in 1875), but to see ultracontemporary visual grammar used to tell so traditional a story is to feel that the essence of the tale is being distorted, just as it is downright bizarre to see a thoroughly modern young actress like Kate Hudson all dressed up as a high-minded Victorian virgin. Cate Blanchett could have played the part of Ethne standing on her head—she’s a real actress, not a prefabricated star—but no sooner does Hudson open her mouth and start talking than the film’s illusion of reality, such as it is, vanishes up the spout.
Not entirely by chance, I went to see Ben-Hur the same weekend I saw The Four Feathers. I’m too young to have seen Ben-Hur in a theater—the sad truth is that I’d never seen it at all—and since it was being shown as part of a William Wyler retrospective at a Manhattan revival house, I thought it’d be worth finding out what I’d missed. I expected it to be corny but fun, and so I was astonished to discover that Ben-Hur is not only entirely serious but at times quite startlingly intense. The script is shapely and literate, the cast close to uniformly splendid (Charlton Heston was never better, which is saying something), and Miklós Rózsa’s magnificent score is one of the half-dozen best to grace an American movie.
Three and a half hours is a long time to sit in a lumpy seat, but Wyler paces each scene so cunningly as to make the film seem at least an hour shorter, whereas The Four Feathers feels a half-hour longer than it really is. Though the special effects are a bit creaky in spots, the outdoor sets make you feel as if you were standing in the middle of downtown Jerusalem or the Circus Maximus. I suspect I will never again think of the Via Dolorosa without imagining it pretty much the way it looks in Ben-Hur, accompanied by the grinding basso ostinato of Rózsa’s Double Indemnity-like music and climaxing in a Crucifixion so believable that you can feel the nails going in.
Even more to the point, Ben-Hur, unlike The Four Feathers, is sure of its own values: It doesn’t hesitate to present Christianity as superior to the spiritual nihilism of Rome. This self-confidence has everything to do with the film’s epic sweep. It’s no accident that in the climactic chariot race, Judah Ben-Hur’s horses are white and Messala’s black. That’s what makes it possible for us to tell the two men apart, both literally and metaphorically. One of the sleazier characters in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, my favorite film noir, remarks in passing that “a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle.” As that unfortunate character learns a half-hour later, dames and rods go together like ham and eggs in film noir, but a morally ambivalent costume epic such as The Four Feathers is very much like a guy with a knitting needle. It’s not impossible, but there are easier ways to knit a sweater, and Ben-Hur is a better sweater to boot.
Speaking of sharp objects, I don’t want to sign off without saying a few encouraging words about Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, a thriller that did well at the box office but didn’t receive the critical attention it deserved. Robin Williams is unexpectedly fine as Sy Parrish, the creepily pitiful bad guy, while Romanek’s script and direction are several cuts above the Hollywood norm. He has something of M. Night Shyamalan’s uncanny knack for making the everyday world seem numinous—high praise indeed. Yes, One Hour Photo is slick, not to mention emotionally manipulative, but like Henry Bromell’s Panic (and unlike the overrated American Beauty, to which it has been inaptly compared), it is a small-scale genre film that has something intelligent, even thoughtful, to say about the coldness and alienation of postmodern American life. I didn’t expect it to be any good, but it beats The Four Feathers all hollow.