Commentary: Fussing over 'Feathers'

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Oct. 25, 2002 at 9:00 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Are empires automatically inept, doomed to be things of the past, invariably repressive of the peoples they rule? To judge by modern popular sentiment and Hollywood stereotypes, you would certainly think so, and the spectacular new movie "The Four Feathers" works hard to make the case. The only trouble is the familiar, cliché-riddled view it expresses is just plain wrong.

The two empires that Hollywood loves to embrace --- and condemn at the same time --- are the Roman and the British. And it is the 19th-century British Empire that is the love/hate subject of the familiar, over-colored hues of "The Four Feathers."

Following the invariable clichéd misrepresentation of Hollywood style books, the British Empire in modern movies, even if it is not outright evil -- as Mel Gibson invariably made it in "Gallipoli," "Braveheart" and "The Patriot" -- must be rigid and stupid. And if the movie is set in 19th-century Victorian times, the Empire must be more rigid and stupid than in later, more liberal, unsure of itself and therefore more "enlightened" times.

Now this is the precise opposite of the real historical record, as the wonderful George Macdonald Fraser loses no opportunity to show in his classic "Flashman novels. But George Orwell grasped this central truth as well.

It was the electronic telegraph that was the true source of rot in the Empire, Orwell maintained because thereafter soldiers and administrators in the most backward corner of Burma and Borneo were reduced from being free-spirited, ruthless but enterprising and amazingly adaptive buccaneers into being obedient puppets at the end of long and carefully monitored and controlled bureaucratic strings.

What is astonishing about the 19th-century British Empire is precisely its initiative, confidence, and not mere competence but astonishingly brilliant and often opportunistic success at carving out vast empires, wealth, domains and developing resources that had never been done before. Stamford Raffles in Singapore, Broke in Borneo, Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon, Lord Cromer, Cecil Rhodes and Sir Colin Campbell defeating the Indian Mutiny as well as the swashbuckling adventurers who developed the Rand Gold Fields in South Africa and the mercantile wealth of Hong Kong all exemplified this overriding characteristic of the Victorian Empire.

"The Four Feathers" reflects none of this. The soldier-servants of the Empire it depicts are -- by and large -- honorable and brave. But they are not street smart. The hero has to be guided through his adventures by the black Sudanese prince Abou Fatma, played commandingly well by Djimon Hainsou. And it is he who is the true hero of the movie.

There is an unpleasant element of crass calculation and liberal racial condescension to this. First, the character carries all too obvious associations of the embarrassing old "token black sidekick" of American movies and TV shows of the 1970s. Second, it has been done too often before. The most ludicrous example of this was the great Morgan Freeman playing a Nubian slave teaching gunpowder, telescopes and other scientific wonders to Robin Hood and his Merry Men in 12th century England in Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood." So good an actor was Freeman that he effortlessly stole the show from the dire, glum, appallingly miscast Costner.

In "The Four Feathers," the stereotyping is so condescending and over-reactive it is reminiscent of the British satirist Peter Simple's imagined 1950s TV series, "Dr. Mfumbuni's Casebook" about an enlightened, state of the art, high-tech Gombolan healer in Britain's antiquated Health Service, though today it may well be a comment on an evident reality.

There is another curious substratum to "Four Feathers" -- its deliberate anti-Muslim tone. For all the evils and supposed absurdities of "Imperialism" the British are not "Evil," in this movie, in striking contrast to the way Mel Gibson invariably portrayed them in "The Patriot" and "Braveheart." Nor are black Africans portrayed as the villains, but Muslims are -- and not just any Muslims, but Sudanese ones.

Now as it happens, Sudan has been a hellhole of Earth for almost half a century and the hell began immediately the British Empire leisurely up and quit in 1955. And the hell has been generated by an unending civil war between the Black animist and Christian southern Sudanese and their northern Muslim and Arab neighbors who control the national government in Khartoum. The Indian director of the movie, Shekhar Kaipur back-projects this contemporary reality a century into the Sudan of the movie.

The movie therefore teaches that Imperialism is incompetent and unsustainable but nevertheless, there are monstrous evils in the world that even absurd Imperialism is a better-than-nothing bulwark against. However, the only "real" bulwark against such radical (Muslim-Arab!) evil, is street-smart, vengeance filled resentment of the peoples on the receiving end of it.

Kaipur, a veteran established director, made his name and learned his skills in "Bollywood," the fabulous movie-making complex in Bombay, now known as Mumbai. He clearly shaped "Four Feathers" to attract the U.S. domestic movie-going audience, the most lucrative in the world audience and he is clearly wooing black Americans as well as white ones -- or at least thinks he is.

Kaipur presents the romantic allure of imperialism, while at the same time showing that a street smart black man is smarter than all the imperialists. And the movie is presented post 9/11 with generically evil Arab Muslims who resent all decency and modernity alike as the villains.

Not only is the movie post 9/11, it is also post-modernist. That was also the case with the recent un-necessary and execrable Hollywood remake of "The Count of Monte Cristo" where, despite superb actors and lavish production values, the entire classic Alexandre Dumas classic novel was gutted. And the entire sense of the social values and snobbery, and the precariousness of social place in post-Restoration

France that drove the original story -- as it drove Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" -- were completely lost.

Ironically, science fiction novels, as opposed to Hollywood chopped-up parodies of them, have often been far more sympathetic to the need for and enduring qualities of Empire in human history. This was especially the case with "The Mote in God's Eye" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, arguably the best novel ever written about a First Contact between Humanity and a biologically radically different intelligent species.

In "Mote," humanity twice nearly exterminated itself through hideous inter-stellar wars. The Unity of Humanity under The Second Empire of Man is therefore the highest moral imperative imaginable. But it is a true and genuine moral imperative, not just a hollow, grotesque excuse for the expansion of power. As in the British Empire, this future empire's officers and servants are motivated by a serious, sincere and wholly admirable moral imperative.

S.M. Stirling's new novel "The Peshawar Lancers" set in a 21st century enduring Anglo-Indian Raj is another most striking example of this genre. Once again, not only is diabolical evil presumed to exist in the world, it is presumed to have organized itself with the resources of vast nations and entire continents behind it -- in this case, cannibal, mass human sacrificing Satan worshippers who have seized control of Russia after a cosmic catastrophe. Only an even vaster and more formidable "Empire of Good" can protect otherwise defenseless humanity from their ravages.

Just as Kaipur and his team cannot grasp the fact that empires need not be abusive or absurd, they also fail to imaginatively recreate the social values and beliefs that actually drove them. Neither Kaipur nor his Hollywood collaborators could begin to grasp the nature of the old British Imperial Social Contract or the central role that honor played in that society.

By contrast, as the Washington Post's eminent movie critic Stephen Hunter has pointed out, the dynamic of samurai warrior honor and shame, left alone and apparently absurd in an otherwise- cynical society, is the driving central dynamic in almost all Akira Kurosawa's late-40s to early 60s masterpieces, among the greatest jewels the cinema has ever produced.

The heavy-handed clichés of "The Four Feathers" script, and the marionette-like line readings and even physical language of its stars suggest that the 19th century concept of romantic honor, whether held by either high or low in society, let alone both, has long since become utterly inconceivable in American popular culture. It is easier for American cultural creators to invent new mythic worlds of honor, like J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" or the dramatizations of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books, than to imaginatively recreate a world that is less than a century gone. That is more than a pity, it is a crippling of our culture.

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