In what is at least the fifth filmed version of this story, a soldier ordered to war resigns his commission. He has just become engaged to a girl he adores and the concerns of a battle on the other side of the world do not seem important to him. His friends and his fiancée send him four white feathers, accusing him of cowardice, and he fears they may be right. So he disguises himself as a native and follows his former regiment to the Sudan. He will not risk his life for the honor of his country, but he will risk it to protect his friends and to prove that they were wrong about him.
This time, Heath Ledger plays Harry Faversham, the reluctant soldier, with Wes Bentley (of “American Beauty”) as his best friend, Jack, and Kate Hudson as Ethne, the woman they both love.
Director Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth”) stages the pageantry very well, from the scenes of red-coated officers swirling their ladies around the dance floor to the marches, battles, and prison scenes. He does fairly well by his young stars. Their British accents may falter, but he knows how to work around their weaknesses and play to their strengths, especially Ledger’s athletic charm, Hudson’s delicate dignity, and Bentley’s ability to combine strength and sensitivity. Kapur is less sure of himself in handling the very traditional structure of the story and there are some oddly disjointed transitions that undermine what should be the most dramatic moments.
Parents should know that the movie has intense battle violence with graphic injuries. Characters are wounded and killed. There is brief nudity in a locker room and a non-explicit sexual situation. The portrayal of non-whites is less offensive than in previous versions of the story, but still reflects the prejudices of the era. The enemy is referred to as “an army of Mohammedan fanatics” and “heathens” and the English think they must win because they have “nobler souls.”
Families who see this movie should talk about how it relates to current concerns about terrorism and the possibility of war. Both sides think that they are doing what God wants them to do. Is there any way to prevent war under those conditions? The director is originally from India. How do you think that affects his portrayal of an era in which British officers referred to non-whites as “wogs” and “heathens?”
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the 1939 Zoltan Korda version , the most thrilling of the many efforts to film this story. They will also enjoy a parody of this genre, The Last Remake of Beau Geste. Other movies raising similar themes about what can and should inspire soldiers to risk their lives are The Americanization of Emily , The Red Badge of Courage, and We Were Soldiers. Families may also want to try Khartoum, a slightly more fact-based movie about the battles in the Sudan.