The Magazine

The Empire Strikes Back

Victorian virtues, Hollywood vices.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By JONATHAN FOREMAN
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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.