[Our Sunday Visitor, September 29, 2002]
The Four Feathers
Toward the beginning of "The Four Feathers," news arrives at an opulent Victorian military ball that "an army of Mohammedan fanatics" has attacked a British fort in the Sudan. A clergyman reminds the soldiers and their ladies that "the Lord has endowed the British race with a world-wide empire," and the soldiers will soon achieve "victories over the heathen."
For a film timed to open soon after the September 11 anniversary, such words would seem to herald an examination of contemporary tensions. Not so, and it’s probably a good thing. The novel, "The Four Feathers," by A. E. W. Mason, was first published in 1902, and aimed to be a swashbuckling romance rather than a political treatise. Mason used the British-Sudanese struggle of 1875 as a backdrop to examine the nature of cowardice and of courage, and then wove in a love story to raise the stakes.
Thus, although director Shekhar Kapur (a native of India) would have clearly loved to skewer British imperialism, Mason’s plot tended firmly in the opposite direction. Kapur has to content himself with tricks like putting the desert soldiers in red jackets so they’ll look clueless, when in reality they dressed in blue and gray. But in Mason’s world, going to fight the heathen was a good thing.
The plot centers on Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), latest in a line of military heroes whose father expects him to follow suit. But Harry is secretly a coward. He signed up hoping to discharge a minimal obligation and then settle down with his intended, Ethne (Kate Hudson). When news of the attack interrupts the ball, and the soldiers prepare to ship out, Harry’s true colors — yellow stripes — emerge. He resigns his commission, which shocks and angers his friends. Three of them send him white feathers, a token of cowardice. When Ethne realizes what has happened, she adds a fourth feather.
The film concerns what happens after Harry has a change of heart. Alone and in disguise he follows after his companions, and attempts to save them from annihilation. His tardy courage proved and a love-triangle nearing resolution, it seems that the story is winding toward an end when it unexpectedly takes off in a new direction. Harry decides to go rescue the remaining feather-giver, who is held in a Sudanese prison. He voluntarily surrenders at the prison himself, a plan that might be described as "not completely thought through." From this point the film becomes much more brutal, reminiscent of the stronger scenes in "Schindler’s List." Ledger’s face, which initially seemed too blank and bland for the part, becomes troubled as a stormy sea. This whole segment seems out of synch with what went before, and seems to have come from a different movie—I might say, a better, stronger movie, though one which is not easy to take.
In the theater next door another son is struggling with his father’s legacy. Calvin (Ice Cube) has inherited his father’s barbershop, and he stares at the mural of the sad-eyed old man in glasses, asking, "How did you do this for forty years?" Calvin is not a good businessman, and has run up a sizeable debt. What he really wants to do is chuck it all for a recording studio. What happens when dreams collide with duty?
In this case, plenty of laughs. Calvin’s smooth, worried face is the still point about which turn a company of oversized characters, barbers, customers, and hangers-on. Brassy, scolding Terri (Eve) is loved by plump, poetic West African Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze); classy college-boy Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) conflicts with white yo-boy Isaac(Troy Garity); ex-felon Ricky (Michael Ealy) is trying to go straight, though there’s a gun in his locker. Most colorful is old man Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), who is a font of strong opinions.
As Calvin realizes the value of the barbershop as place to speak freely, he rethinks his plan to sell it to neighborhood loan shark Lester Wallace (Keith David in a blue bowler, as oily as can be). Where else can people say the things that, according to Eddie, can’t be said in front of white people? For example, that Rodney King "deserved to get whupped," that "OJ did it," and that Martin Luther King was unbecomingly promiscuous (Eddie expresses this concept more concisely using a two-letter word).
The action takes place in a single day, as Calvin makes a deal with the devilish Wallace, then tries to undo it, only to discover that the interest is 100% per day. Meanwhile the barbers feud among themselves, and customers breeze in with complex rapid-fire requests: "A little off the top, long in the back but not quite a shag, slope to the left like Gumby, Eddie Munster in the front, a little Wyclef on the right." Meanwhile, Ricky’s cousin Billy (Lahmard Tate) and his crony JD (Anthony Andrews) have stolen an ATM machine and cart it from place to place in their slapstick attempts to break it open. The comedy is broad, but often very funny, and the audience laughed uproariously.
More serious moments convey surprisingly conservative messages, primarily that self-respect is earned by behaving honorably. When the barbers discuss the concept of reparations, Ricky delivers the film’s strongest message, almost directly to the camera: "We don’t need reparations, we need restraint. We need self-discipline." If anything mars "Barbershop" it’s the frequent use of mildly off-color language, but this old-fashioned ensemble comedy still delivers lots of solid laughs and leaves with a warm glow.
You don’t go out to the movies? Join the crowd. Many people balk at high ticket prices and uncertain fare, planning to rent the video later on. So why not organize a parish video club? Each month, announce in the parish newsletter the title of a movie available for rental. Participants view the film at home, at their own convenience (after the kids are in bed, if the film would be over their heads). Once a month—say, on the last Sunday night—everyone meets at the church or a home for coffee, dessert, and discussion of the movie.
The "golden age" of American film is the 1930’s and 40’s, so let’s start with a polished comedy from that era. "The Palm Beach Story" is a good example of the genre called "screwball comedy," which meant a wacky romance in an elegant setting. While some factors here have become stereotypical (the black actor "Snowflake" as a wide-eyed cook), others retain their fresh oddity, such as the philosophizing "weinie king" and Rudy Vallee’s awkward, sincere J.D.Hackensacker III. Director Preston Sturges is deservedly acclaimed as one of America’s most intelligent comic filmmakers. Find out why, and pick up catch-phrases like, "What’s knittin’, kittens?" along the way.