The Four Feathers

There are so many good things in “The Four Feathers” that it’s a shame to see them wasted in such an ineffective movie.

Take Heath Ledger, for example. After hinting at his true abilities in “Monster’s Ball,” he now emerges fully formed as an actor of consequence, playing a 19th-century British soldier guilty of the most unpardonable of sins: He’s afraid to go to war.

Ledger takes his character, Harry Feversham, through all manner of hell and deprivation, both physically and emotionally. His performance is mature and impressive.

It is especially noteworthy considering how little the screenplay gives him to work with. Written by Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini, this adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1898 adventure novel has kept much of the book’s plot but little of its meaning; it has the characters doing pretty much the same things, neglecting only to tell us why they’re doing them.

Harry leaves the army on the eve of a major skirmish in the Sudan, unable to follow in his father’s footsteps by fighting and killing for his country. Harry is recently engaged, to the lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson), but that’s merely a handy excuse for not going to war. His real reason is that he’s chicken.

Ironically, the movie becomes cowardly, too, refusing to commit to the radical, uncommon concept of a protagonist who is very understandably afraid to die. By the end of the film, Harry is in battle, performing feats of strength and courage — yet nothing in his speech or actions suggests he has actually become courageous. One senses that, when this task is accomplished, he will return to civilian life and never look back.

Upon leaving his commission, Harry is given four white feathers — symbols of cowardice — by three of his friends and his fiancee. In the book, he sets out to save each of the friends’ lives in order to prove he’s no coward. In the movie, he heads out to the Sudan and follows the troops around, with no indication what his plans are, or if he even has plans. The one person he seems most intent on saving — Jack (Wes Bentley), who also carries a torch for Ethne — is the one friend who DIDN’T send him a feather. And the various other people who manage to survive tend to do so more with the help of Harry’s African mercenary friend Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou) than with Harry’s.

Director Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth”) flirts with a few themes that provoke thought, then abandons them. The incongruities of war, especially religious war, are briefly pondered. The absurdity of the British being both stoic and bloodthirsty — they march daintily in straight lines and call each other “Mr. So-and-So” even in the middle of battle, while simultaneously declaring their enemies heathens worthy of death — is a subject ripe for discussion. It is given a careless glance, and nothing more.

Robert Richardson’s cinematography is often gorgeous to behold, highlighting the vast, dangerous beauty of the desert sands of Africa. All we need is for something to HAPPEN on those sands. The soggy romance and seemingly aimless wanderings of a quasi-coward give “The Four Feathers” a lot of bulk but no depth.

C- (2 hrs., 5 min.; PG-13, some partial nudity, brief sexuality, a lot of violence and grisly images.)