Plucked clean: Four Feathers mostly fluff

As a product of the U.S. educational system, I'm as ignorant about history as President Bush, but with less severe repercussions in my case. Reported historical inaccuracies in the 2002 version of The Four Feathers don't concern me. I was just looking for a ripping yarn.

Unfortunately, this yarn unravels more than it rips. In a nod to liberals who may have wandered into the wrong theater, the protagonist spends about a minute questioning the need for war– and perhaps colonialism– and the next two hours in the thick of it.

The "message" speech says in effect that men don't fight wars for patriotic or economic reasons, but for the comrades at their side. To me that seems less a justification than a reason none of them should be there in the first place.

The drama boils down to a Pearl Harbor-like triangle about best friends in love with the same woman, who switches affections when her first choice appears to be out of the picture. It's set in an earlier period than Pearl Harbor, but has more parallels to our own time.

Heath Ledger stars as Harry Feversham, who was raised in a military family in 19th-century England and tries to go along with the program until he learns his regiment is being sent off to the Sudan as replacements for the men who have been wiped out by "an army of Mohammedan fanatics." The other dodos leap at the chance to be cannon fodder, but Harry resigns his commission and bows out.

His action is seen as cowardice by all but his best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley). Their three other buddies send Harry white feathers to symbolize a yellow streak. When he receives a fourth feather from his fiancée, Ethne (Kate Hudson), Harry starts believing it himself and seeking a way to "redeem myself (and) face up to my fears."

In a journey that must be as grueling for him to make as it is for us to watch, Harry goes to the Sudan alone and makes his way across the desert by posing as an Arab. Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou of Amistad) appoints himself Harry's protector. Eventually Harry finds himself in the curious position of riding with the Sudanese against the British troops he's trying to help.

A lot of other things happen on the way to a fear-gone conclusion as Harry supposedly proves himself courageous while the British Empire strikes out. There aren't a lot of specifics about time and place (in case you were planning to see The Four Feathers to bone up for an exam). The passage of time is marked primarily by the growth of Harry's hair and beard.

The Four Feathers was directed by Shekhar Kapur. Like his Elizabeth, it's marred by strangely dark (considering the desert sun) photography and a failure to distinguish the male supporting characters from each other sufficiently.

Aside from the relative dimness, Robert Richardson has done a beautiful job on the cinematography, a good thing because this is a very visual film. There's little dialogue, and most of what's there is unnecessary, except to show that the English like to talk. The three main English characters are played by an Australian and two Americans whose accents are as flawless as their speeches are emotionless.

As another English-speaking country prepares for another war, The Four Feathers raises some important questions, but it treats them perfunctorily and comes to the wrong answers.