The term "epic" should never be used lightly when referring to a motion picture, but there's no problem assigning it to this story of love and friendship, cruelty and honor, all set in the late 1800s, when the British Empire was having some difficulties spreading its tendrils across the map.
This is the sixth remake of the A.E.W. Mason novel about a group of four young, dashing friends who are about to make names for themselves as officers in the British army. The film kicks off with a spirited, romantic beginning -- best friends Harry (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Wes Bentley) have eyes for the lovely Ethne (Kate Hudson); she chooses Harry. There's soon a hint of what's to come when the soldiers partake in some loud and fast bayonet training.
What's not expected is the reaction from handsome, dashing Harry when word is received that British forces in the Sudan have been slaughtered by heathens, and that he and his friends will be among the next wave of troops sent out there. He hands in his resignation -- not because he's just become engaged, nor because of any thoughts of political wrongdoing. He quits because he's afraid to go. This does not sit well with Ethne, who's now not sure what Harry is made of, nor does it fly with his proud father, who turns to Harry and says, "I don't know you," before walking away. But worse, he receives a package from some of his friends containing three white feathers, in those days a symbol of cowardice. Not long after, he receives a fourth feather, from Ethne.
Life for Harry is over. He's abandoned by all those who knew and loved him, and his closest friends are fighting a brutal war in a far-off place. Coming to grips with his situation, he realizes it's not the one he wants. Unbeknownst to anyone, he manages to transport himself to the African hell hole known as the Sudan, lets his hair and beard grow, dresses in traditional African clothing, and applies dirt to his face, so he at least passes for someone who is not a British soldier. His mission is twofold: to find and help his friends if he can, and to prove to himself that the feathers were a mistake, that he's not a coward.
Within this framework, director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) has fashioned an exciting, swirling story that jumps back and forth between the two distinctive worlds of Britain and the Sudan, driving home the fact -- this is quite prescient when looking at the world today -- that with respect to customs, religion and mindset, East and West will never meet.
Yet things aren't simply black and white. No viewer is going to have trouble differentiating between the good guys and the bad guys, but there are indeed many shades of gray. What the British were doing back then was nothing less than stealing land in order to perpetuate their idea of world conquest. They were the invaders. The Africans were fighting to keep their way of life. However, they were doing it with the most harrowing, barbaric methods. The film's centerpiece, at about the halfway point, is a fierce battle between stalwart British forces and marauding bands of Mahdi warriors. It's a breathtaking, horrifying visual spectacle of a desert attack on camel, horseback and foot, with guns and swords, full of furious action. To tip the excitement meter into the red, some of it is shot from the shaky point of view of the Sudanese who are thundering in on the outnumbered British.
In keeping with the striking visual images that make up the backbone of the film -- especially the way cinematographer Robert Richardson (Snow Falling on Cedars) has captured the frightening beauty of the white, windswept desert -- the battle's aftermath bears a striking resemblance to some of Matthew Brady's Civil War portraits. And veteran composer James Horner again works wonders, with contributions ranging from a lilting waltz to a rousing march to some rhythmic tribal music.
Among the terrific performances, there's a tumultuous, emotional one from Ledger, most recently seen as Billy Bob Thornton's son in Monster's Ball (and soon in the title role for the remake of Ned Kelly), and a stoic one from Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, Gladiator), here playing Abou, the mysterious man of the desert who becomes Harry's protector.
In the end, several plot points remain unresolved -- but after going through a film this big and a story so enticing, a perfect ending isn't all that necessary.