Entry from September 26, 2002

A footnote to the review of The Four Feathers below and the description of it by the progressive-minded David Thomson, writing in the progressive-minded New York Times, as “preposterous racist folderol.” Well sure. What else should the Times say of it? But another thing that Thomson wrote caught my eye. Of the 1939 film-version of the story, he claims that it includes an account of the charge of the Light Brigade — which it doesn’t; he confuses Inkerman with Balaclava — and adds the facetious question: “Who can be sure now whether that was a skirmish in history or an Errol Flynn picture?”

A feeble joke, of course, but it implies that he supposes his opinion of the film, that it constitutes merely one of the “brutal legends of white empire and godly purpose that rose from the ashes of the British misadventures in the Sudan,” must gains in force from such an advertisement of his ignorance. Similarly, he gets the date wrong, saying that the opening of the film is set in 1898, when it actually begins (you can tell because the date is superimposed on the screen at the beginning of the opening sequence) in 1884. The later date is actually that of the battle of Omdurman, which would have been the film’s natural climax (as it is of the earlier versions) except that the director didn’t bother to include it.

Thomson also writes:

But then ask yourself what kind of code it is that places such importance on cowardice or courage, white feathers or pretty medals. In all the versions of The Four Feathers, Faversham has not yet, in 100 years, found the wit or the historical perspective to stand up to the regiment and ask: “Why are we going there?” “What do we want there?” “Why not stay home?” The courage not to go may be as rare this year or next as it was in 1898 and 1914.

It is hard to imagine any more spectacular proof of the author’s lack of understanding or sympathy with the film. What kind of code? The kind that everyone understood up until about half a century ago but which the likes of Mr. Thomson can now treat as if it were the lunatic beliefs of some South Sea island cargo cult. It shows a want of historical imagination, to put it no stronger, not to recognize that people haven’t always been just like David Thomson and the people who run the New York Times. But then how can we expect Mr Thomson to get it right when the director himself seems ashamed of his materials. As the Times’s reviewer, Elvis Mitchell, put it, “it’s as if Mr. Kapur were making a commercial for a way of life that no one misses. If he wants to underscore the macho superficiality of the traditions, the point could have been made much faster.”

Not that Mr Mitchell would have thanked him for it. To him, “the picture”s wheezing fussiness and devotion to the British empire and its minor nods to questioning unthinking loyalty to an ideal make The Four Feathers a possible first of a kind: a movie that”s halfhearted about ambivalence.” Not that I was able to detect much in the way of “devotion to the British empire.” Quite the contrary. Such a thing today would be quite as unthinkable as resigning one’s commission on the eve of being sent into action was a century ago. Mind you, it sometimes is a bit of a stretch, finding reasons to hate the wicked imperialists. Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post, for instance, borrows from John Ellis, author of The Social History of the Machine Gun, the following account of the Battle of Omdurman (which, I remind you, is not in the picture):

Men on horseback charged men with automatic weapons, with predictable results. When the buzzguns stopped buzzing, the Dervishes stopped whirling. Final body count: 11,000 Dervishes, 28 British soldiers. Is that a battle or an industrialized execution? The acerbic British poet Hilaire Belloc summed it up ever so brightly: “Whatever happens we have got / the Maxim gun and they have not.”

And isn’t this precisely the description of the success of American arms in the Gulf War — or at Hiroshima — only substituting cruise missiles or atom bombs for “the Maxim gun”? And does anyone suppose that George W. Bush would be talking about war in Iraq today if we hadn’t still got the 21st century equivalent of the Maxim gun? In fact, it’s precisely to ensure that “they have not” that Bush is making his case for war. Hunter writes as if it were somehow unfair of the British to have used their superior weaponry to bring to the Sudan pretty much the brief totality of order and peace that the wretched place has enjoyed in the past century and a half. But then, like the film itself and so much else of the multiculturalist agenda, his version of history is strictly for those who can confidently expect to remain unaffected themselves by the political and military chaos they prescribe for those others whom he describes, without apparent irony, as “exploited masses.”



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