September 30, 2002 12:00 PM

Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen

When a young British officer (Ledger) wimps out and quits his commission rather than ship off to war in the Sudan in the late 19th century, his buddies in uniform and his humiliated fiancée (Hudson) present him with four white feathers to symbolize his cowardice. Determined to redeem his reputation, he secretly hightails it over to Africa, disguises himself as an Arab and covertly aids his friends in battle.

This Four Feathers is at least the fifth time that A.E.W. Mason’s swashbuckling 1902 novel has been brought to the screen, though the most recent version was a 1977 TV movie starring Beau Bridges and Jane Seymour. And there’s still life in this old warhorse, but it limps badly. Its fitful pace comes despite, or maybe because of, ham-fisted attempts by director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and his screenwriters to put a revisionist PC-slant on the proceedings. Harry, our hero, now questions the British Empire’s expansionist policies and receives crucial help over in Africa from a mysterious, English-speaking native (Hounsou) who makes wry, deprecatory remarks such as “You English walk too proudly on this earth.” But who exactly is this guy? Hounsou’s character remains a noble blank. He comes, he helps the white man, and he disappears back over the desert’s shimmering horizon, like an earlier incarnation of Bagger Vance.

In Feathers‘ favor, the movie is beautifully photographed and the battle scenes are stirringly staged. But it drags on too long and it’s all over the place, trying to be a buddy picture, a military thriller and a romance all rolled up into one not very tightly stitched package. Ledger proves he can suffer bravely here and look ruggedly determined while astride a charging horse, but one spends more time worried over his evident sunburn than his character’s sufferings. Hudson, swaddled in period gowns and stuck with the dippy name of Ethne (it takes half the movie to figure out others aren’t calling her Daphne, Ethel or Ethelene), has a wavering English accent and mostly just pouts. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Lightweight epic

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