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Victorian virtues, Hollywood vices.

BOTH THE NEW MOVIE “The Four Feathers” and the reaction to it exemplify contemporary attitudes to Anglo-Saxon imperialism and the Victorians who practiced it. The film itself–the sixth cinematic version of the A.E.W. Mason novel first published in 1902–is a failure as motion-picture entertainment: visually stunning but dramatically weak and thematically confused. Its failure suggests that the British imperial epic is one genre that cannot be successfully resuscitated as “Gladiator” did the sword-and-sandal flick. Anti-imperialism seems now to be too deeply embedded in our culture, and the Victorians seem at least as foreign to us (especially in their concern with things like honor and the judgments of Society) as the fierce non-Western peoples they fought.

Both the best and the worst things about this remake of “The Four Feathers” have much to do with its director, Shekhar Kapur–an Indian whose last film, the enjoyably lurid “Elizabeth,” displayed a sense of dynasty and of the importance of religious difference that is hard to imagine in an American director. His beautifully shot battle scenes in “The Four Feathers,” however, impose a kind of Leninist gloss on the Sudanese wars, with a cunning guerrilla peasantry teaching a terrible lesson to arrogant imperialist regulars, whose prized notions of masculine self-control and patriotism are revealed by defeat to be a great lie.

This is absurd historically–and, far worse, it wrecks the story.

The British fought two wars in the Sudan, from 1884 to 1885 and from 1897 to 1898. This film seems at least at times to be set during the first one, although the novel and all the previous movie versions were set during the second war, in which the Sudan was conquered by an Anglo-Egyptian army led by General Horatio Herbert Kitchener.

The Sudan was not considered a part of the British Empire in 1884. It was a rebellious province of Egypt, itself a nominal department of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, but in fact a state that had fallen under informal British control. Neither a colony nor an official protectorate, it continued to be nominally ruled by a khedive until after the Second World War.

Under the influence of the British, the Egyptian government had attempted to suppress the slave trade in the Sudan. This, in 1881, fueled a fundamentalist rebellion led by a messianic holy man who styled himself the Mahdi. After the Mahdi smashed an Egyptian army commanded by a Colonel Hicks in 1883 (capturing, among other things, its modern Remington rifles), the British decided that further attempts to contain the Mahdist revolt would be a waste of men and money. They ordered the evacuation of all Egyptian garrisons from the Sudan.

THIS WAS OVERSEEN by General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, the British general appointed governor general of the Sudan by the Khedive despite London’s objections. Gordon, who was devoted to the Sudanese and the anti-slavery cause, wanted British intervention in the Sudan and he refused to abandon Khartoum, which was then besieged by the Mahdi. Reluctantly, and after much delay, the British prime minister Gladstone sent an expedition to relieve Gordon, who was protected only by an unreliable Sudanese and Egyptian garrison.

Though the film presents this expedition as an exercise intended “to restore the dignity of our empire,” its aims were much more limited. And although the film shows the resulting war as a military catastrophe, the facts are otherwise. The combined Anglo-Egyptian relief force fought several fierce battles with the “dervish” enemy, before arriving at Khartoum just too late to rescue Gordon.

Gordon’s death damaged Gladstone’s government and the careers of the soldiers who took too long to reach Khartoum. But calls for vengeance soon dissipated. And it wasn’t until a decade had passed, and the Mahdi had died and been succeeded by a new despot, the Khalifa, that anyone seriously considered undertaking another expedition.

 

SHEKHAR KAPUR’S movie begins marvelously with a vigorously filmed, rather brutal game of rugby. Here are young men being prepared for war through sport. Not cricket, mind you, with its chivalrous rules and rituals so redolent of a settled, leisured society–but rugby: a thuggish game invented by and for gentlemen who will one day face the challenge of ruling an unruly world. In the novel one of the characters refers ruefully to female admiration for “brute courage” in men, and Kapur has the women watching from the side display an almost visceral pleasure in the sight of their menfolk struggling in the mud.

It is a sequence that suggests that an ideology fetishizing physical toughness, teamwork, camaraderie, and courage really did play an important role in the ability of a small island people to conquer so much of the globe. It is also the last accurate, insightful, or, more important, honest sequence in the movie.

Worse, the film treks to extreme dullness. It’s some achievement to take the excitement and emotion out of a story that has delighted readers and movie audiences so often and for so long. Especially when you have going for you spectacular Moroccan locations (far more dramatic than the genuine Sudanese locations used in the 1939 version) and Shekhar Kapur’s amazing eye for landscape and color.

The filmmakers’ final product says little of the human drama of the novel, a work primarily interested in fathers and sons and blindness, both physical and emotional. It is also too ambivalent about courage, honor, and the spectacle of Europeans’ defeating people of color to take pleasure in high adventure.

It doesn’t help that the strain of speaking in English accents seems to drain stars Heath Ledger and Wes Bentley of their acting abilities. Still, it may not be the actors’ fault that all the male British characters speak and move with a robotic stiffness (as if the filmmakers drew their sense of Victorian England from Monty Python skits). The same characters in the 1939 version–a film made by people who had known real Victorians–are full of life and emotion by comparison.

You might expect modern filmmakers to be uncomfortable with honor and duty, but these modern filmmakers seem just as uneasy with love and loyalty and romantic rivalry. They don’t know how to deal with the act that precipitates the action in “The Four Feathers”: the resignation of Harry Faversham from the army on the eve of its departure to war in the Sudan. It’s this that prompts three of his best friends and his fiancée to hand him white feathers–symbols of cowardice–and provokes him to go to the Sudan, disguise himself as an Arab, and redeem himself with acts of heroism.

In the trailers for Kapur’s version there’s a line about his not wanting to take part in an immoral war. This has been excised from the final cut, apparently because the producers were afraid the public would draw some kind of upsetting parallel with the contemporary preparations for a war in Iraq. In the book and the previous movie versions, Harry resigns out of real fear: not fear of death or injury, but fear of being afraid. The clever, sensitive son of a bullying, unimaginative general, Harry has been the target of too many admonitory stories about men who went yellow under fire. And he is convinced he would do the same and therefore bring disgrace upon his family, his fiancée, his friends, and his regiment.

Interestingly, in the 1939 version–usually accused of being the most hopelessly propagandistic about the empire–Harry expresses strong doubts about the war: “the futility of this idiotic Egyptian adventure, the madness of it all.” And there were indeed lots of people in the 1880s and 1890s who felt the same way, the Victorian political class being rather less conformist than Kapur and his colleagues seem to imagine. But now Harry’s motivation for resignation remains a mystery, perhaps because the real goal of the film is to “deconstruct” the myths that informed its predecessors. In a confused, halfhearted way, it’s an anti-imperialist imperial epic.

 

IRONICALLY, this has been missed by most critics. Several have complained that the film isn’t anti-imperialist enough. Thus, the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “Go get skewered in the midday sun so Queen Vicky can add a few more quid to her Barclays account? [Faversham] would prefer not to.” The sub-Marxist idea that the Sudanese wars were part of some squalid grab for exploitable natural resources is laughable. The Sudan in the late nineteenth century had no resources for the taking–except the black slaves being traded by the very people the British were fighting. Roger Ebert felt the same way, saying that the movie was more enjoyable the less you knew about the real British Empire (he’s right, but for the wrong reasons).

Yet for all their apparent dislike of imperial culture, Kapur and his team are far too intelligent to make the ignorant assumptions that crept into so many reviews. Instead, in an effort to make the Sudanese into standard-issue victims of bad white folk, the film suppresses the race war that was already under way in the Sudan before intervention by Anglo-Egyptian forces. In the 1880s and 1890s–as today–Muslim Arab tribes in the north were brutalizing Christian and animist black tribes in the south. It also chooses to forget the fact that the Mahdi’s and then the Khalifa’s Sudanese were rebelling against Egyptian overlordship that long predated Britain’s very recent dominion over Egypt.

 

THE BRITISH-LED effort to halt the Sudanese slave trade, like the suppression of suttee (widow burning) and thuggee (the ritual murder of travelers) in India, may have been culturally insensitive. But such things were an inevitable result of the moral enthusiasms that played such an important role in British imperialism (though not Belgian, Spanish, French, Dutch, or German imperialisms). It was the desire to end the depredations of slavers that sent sailors of the Royal Navy to die of malaria in the Bight of Benin, and Gordon to die in Khartoum.

The sad thing is that the kind of dishonesty that removes issues of slavery and indigenous racial conflict also covers up a historical reality that is far more interesting than the one depicted in “The Four Feathers.” Sudanese black troops, anxious to avenge their enslaved brethren, were among the most effective troops marshaled by the British, certainly superior to the Egyptians who formed the vast majority of a force that included large numbers of Indian soldiers, volunteers from Australia, Canadian voyageurs (who manned whale boats used to bring troops up the Nile cataracts), and even some Americans.

Yet there are times when Kapur seems to be undercutting his own instinct to make this a revisionist retelling. For instance, there is a scene in which a shocked Faversham stops a French whoremaster from brutalizing a beautiful slave girl. Later, when Faversham behaves like a broken man, pathetically begging his jailer for food, it’s implied that he’s only doing so to save the life of a desperate comrade.

Kapur also seems to be seduced by the pageantry of the Victorian British army. His camera adores the gorgeous scarlet uniforms (though in real life khaki was generally worn in the Sudan campaigns), the rituals of the ballroom and regimental dining hall, and the camaraderie as much as it does the barren beauty of the desert locations.

Presumably it is this visual fascination that so enrages those who see the film as excessively apologist about the British Empire. In the production notes for the film, screenwriter Hossein Amini, whose script for “The Wings of the Dove” would make you expect better, is quoted as saying: “Imperial England was confronting a world and society about which it knew very little. These young men went from fantastic country mansions into the middle of the desert, and in the end their overconfidence and belief in their superiority led to mistakes and ultimately to disaster.”

EVERYTHING about this is wrong. The British didn’t suffer any military disasters in the Sudan. They won–and with so few casualties on their side, and with so many on the other, that it actually sickened the more sensitive among them. There’s something mad about the notion that late-Victorian British officers were braying, ignorant naifs whose illusions about warfare and their capacity for self-command would be smashed by war in a distant desert. These people had fought fierce tribespeople in mountains, deserts, and jungles all over the world for more than a hundred years. Yet Kapur takes a delight in showing the disintegration of British soldiery under the shock of combat–leaving unanswered the question of how small handfuls of these men managed to conquer so much of the globe. While you can lay many charges at their feet, cowardice or a lack of sang-froid was not one of them.

Kapur also has dervishes popping out of holes in the ground like enraged, sword-waving ground squirrels. In another sequence the dervishes put on the uniforms of killed or captured British soldiers, deceive their enemy, and therefore wipe out a British square. It’s a fantasy of the Sudanese as the Vietnamese on their best day. In truth, the main trick to defeating Sudanese rebels was to bring enough water. Some of the battles fought on the way to relieve Gordon were ferocious. In two of them British squares were briefly broken, giving inspiration to some of the best known imperial poetry and prompting the British to accord the Sudanese dervishes great respect–even though in both cases, Tamai and Abu Klea, the squares were reformed, the enemy who’d broken into them dispatched, and the attacks on them repulsed.

In the film, on the other hand, one of the officers panics and calls a retreat (though in a surrounded square there is nowhere to retreat to) and the square is completely wiped out. It’s interesting that the much less impressive real-life achievement by the dervishes seems to have made an enormous impression on the British.

See for example Kipling’s “Fuzzy Wuzzy” (referring to the Haddendawa tribe that fought at Tamai): “We sloshed you with Martinis, an it wasn’t ‘ardly fair; / But for all the odds agin you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square . . . / So ‘eres to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan; / You’re a poor benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man.”

Since the British meted out preferential treatment to the “martial peoples” of the empire (most of them Muslim), this really counted. The same battles were also the inspiration for the most famous piece of Victorian doggerel, Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Vitae Lampada”:

 

The sand of the desert is sodden red,–

Red with the wreck of a square that broke;–

The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks,

And England’s far, and Honor a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks,

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Even this reveals a sense of war more realistic than the one Kapur allows his callow subalterns (though it shows how smart Kapur was to start the film off on the playing field). It is ironic that Victorians like Kipling could also be rather better at demystifying the imperial military mystique than contemporary anti-imperialists like Kapur himself seem to be: “A scrimmage in a Border Station / A clatter down a steep defile / Two thousand pounds of education / Drop to a ten-rupee jezail.”

Of course, the Victorians were much more complicated and interesting people than they are given credit for being. And though capable of great self-deception especially on matters of race, they often had an accurate sense of their own qualities and limitations, especially those that seem so alien today. They prized self-command because they knew the extraordinary things it made possible.

In 1852, a British troopship, the paddlewheeled Birkenhead, hit a rock off Capetown. There wasn’t time to evacuate everyone onto the lifeboats. So as the women and children were lowered to safety, the troops and their officers stood, mustered on the deck. Not a single man broke ranks. And they were still standing as the ship broke and sank.

As Kipling wrote, “To stand and be still / To the Birkenhead drill / Is a damn’ tough bullet to chew.”

What made such deeds possible was the combination of a sense of duty and a rigid social hierarchy (at least by American standards). What the Victorians had and we can hardly imagine are the resulting pressures of society. They lived in a world in which mere physical cowardice, let alone exposure as a liar or fraudster, could earn a man permanent expulsion from desirable social circles.

It is a sad irony of history that the Victorian “Romanitas”–the sense of duty and hierarchy, the discipline and paternalism that formed the backbone of the British military culture–ensured the doctrinal rigidity that cost so many British lives in both world wars. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to look at the Victorian men fictionalized in “The Four Feathers” through the Edwardian lens of Bloomsbury and Lytton Strachey’s mockery.

High Victorian culture could be rigid in its obsession with self-control and even cruel. But its optimism, discipline, and sense of duty made it very good at certain things. And their own pre-industrial code of a gentleman’s honor gave Victorians an advantage when it came to dealing with other honor cultures–honor cultures similar to those that inform Osama bin Laden and other Arab enemies of the West. If America is to take up an imperial role in the world today, we have only the Victorian British from whom to learn how to do it.

Jonathan Foreman is a film critic, op-ed columnist, and an editorial board member of the New York Post.

 

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