Shekhar Kapur: When courage is not enough

He relished the idea of reworking a classic story about honour and duty. So why is Shekhar Kapur so miserable about the final product? Fiona Morrow discovers the truth behind The Four Feathers - an epic tale of bad planning, panicked studio bosses and lost love
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The Independent Culture

Shekhar Kapur looks weary. He flew back to Britain from Japan the day before our meeting; his mind may know that it's breakfast time in London, but his body believes something altogether different.

There's more than one time lapse at play this morning: we're here to talk about The Four Feathers, a film that hurtled into production in fast-forward, hit post-production in slo-mo and then languished in a marketing and release freeze-frame.

The Four Feathers was a victim of circumstance. More than once. Shooting began on the hoof, as its backers, Miramax, were worried that an actors' strike might scupper it. Then a pre-September 11 project became a post-September 11 problem.

Before the world turned into axes of good and evil, Miramax must have imagined a version of AEW Mason's oft-filmed colonial epic would be just another notch on its literary slate alongside Wings of the Dove, Chocolat, The Shipping News, Bridget Jones's Diary, and The Quiet American.

They commissioned an Anglo-Iranian screenwriter, Hossein Amini, and approached Kapur, an Indian director, perhaps to undermine the novel's imperialism, or - as cynics have suggested - to ward off any criticism of easy jingoism.

The film is set in the midst of the British Empire, when real men were soldiers and fighting for your country, right or wrong, was not just applauded, it was expected. To refuse was to be a coward; white feathers were sent to conscientious objectors as a symbol of disgust and ostracism. If you weren't with us, you were agin' us.

It's a milieu that, until recently, would have felt decidedly old hat. But here we are, back making our mark on others' soils, desperate for a hero to make the world safe again.

And Shekhar Kapur is left trying to knit back together a movie which unravelled long ago.

Though Amini has since intimated that the project was simply a career move he felt he couldn't turn down, Kapur says he was genuinely tempted: "It's obviously a dangerous task, to take a story that's been filmed five times already, and reinterpret it," he shrugs, picking disinterestedly at a bowl of fruit salad. "Especially when one of the films [directed by Zoltan Korda in 1939] has become a legend. But to have a film made and remade again and again and for not one version ever to question the base moral structures of the film's story - colonisation and the notion of what makes a hero - is interesting."

The plot follows the fortunes of Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger), a young English soldier recently engaged to Ethne (Kate Hudson) who, the night before his regiment is to sail to fight in the Sudan, resigns his commission. His three best friends and Ethne reward him with a box containing four white feathers. Harry promptly dispatches himself to the Sudan to prove himself no coward.

For Kapur, Harry's heroism is never in question: "He is called a coward because he says 'No. I'm not going to go to war because I'm afraid', but I saw the act of saying so as one of great courage. And particularly in today's context, when you're losing individuality, when you're being dominated, if not by one's peer group then by the media or by the state, and everyone around is being kind of brainwashed, how many of us make the choice to not give in?"

Kapur signed up, eager for the challenge, and believing that there was an audience for a film that questioned Western values: "I was pretty convinced that the world would take that," he sighs. "I was pretty convinced that a hero was not necessarily one who goes to war, into battle. I was pretty convinced that post-Vietnam that was how the US thought."

He may have been right, but by the time the film was in the editing room, the US thought no such thing. "Post-9/11 people were looking to hide behind simplicity," he acknowledges sadly. "In the US they couldn't understand how or why it had happened, so they were looking for mythic bad men, the mythic evil, because what else would be determined to destroy our civilisation?"

The studio encouraged Kapur to get the movie back to basics: "The pressure was to make the film simpler, more about the old values of courage, to make it easier for audiences. That was the pressure, to take out scenes that seemed to be implying rather than stating."

It didn't help that the production landed in Morocco before the script was ready. "I'd say we had about two months work left to do," notes Kapur with resignation. "So the production of the film was particularly difficult. When I direct, I like to plan a lot. I may drop all my plans, but at least I've examined all my options, right down to how this scene will cut to that scene."

In the cutting room an unpolished script became an overlong movie. Running at something over three hours, almost a third had to go. "A lot of people ask me if Harvey [Weinstein, head of Miramax] sat in the editing room and made me cut an hour out," Kapur says, not bothering to hide his impatience with such a view. "Well, no. Harvey liked the three-hour version and he often said so, but there was a general acceptance that we couldn't release it at three hours."

I ask him about the process of stripping the film back and Kapur's impatience dissolves into something closer to defeat. "When you start to cut it down, then it's a process of re-evaluating the whole film - it's never a matter of just a nip and a tuck." The film opened in the US to damning reviews. Kapur looks pained when I bring them up. Having neglected his fruit salad, he bums a piece of toast from me, spreads it with honey and eats half of it before addressing the issue of the press.

Comparisons to the Korda version were, he accepts, inevitable but plot changes were out of his hands: "We couldn't do anything that the Korda version did if it wasn't in the book. It was a copyright issue on all of the other films. Five films, and five interpretations have already been made and there's no way you can use any of them. That was an odd business."

More bizarre, he thinks, was the suggestion that he had deliberately made Heath Ledger look like the American who fought with the Taliban, John Walker Lindh. "I found that very strange, particularly as we shot the film well before September 11." Kapur pauses and, for the only time during the interview, smiles. "The funny thing is, when I first screened the rushes everyone said that Heath looked like Jesus Christ." The smile is quickly replaced with a frown when he moves on to the subject of his female star. "They criticised Kate Hudson, when they should have realised it was the character Ethne that they didn't like," he snaps.

Ethne is clearly a sore point for Kapur, a director who, in his previous films, Bandit Queen and Elizabeth, has proved himself very strong on female roles. "I felt that she was under-written from the beginning," he proffers more quietly. "I think we all knew that."

"We assumed that this was ultimately a story about the boys but Ethne was crucial and I for one argued that each character has to go on a journey of self-discovery and I did not believe that this film could be tied up in a neat little knot at the end."

Miramax apparently thought differently, even going so far to market the film in the States as a love story. I ask Kapur whether the finished film really feels his own and he seems to shrink in his seat: "Look, I'm the director, ultimately the buck stops with me . Did I ever give up the fight for my point of view? No. You lose some battles and you win some."

"I know it hasn't done well in the US and I know it's flawed. I can see the flaws, but that doesn't deny the fact that I made it. And I think that some of the issues that the film is talking about - all of the issues - however strongly or weakly they come across, are issues that I believe in. And it has some great moments."

He asks me what I think and I tell him that it didn't work for me, that instead of leaving the cinema feeling outraged at the colonial arrogance, I was left irritated by a feeble romance.

He stares at me silently. "Off the record," he begins tentatively, before shaking his head and starting again. "Oh fuck it, on the record, I agree with you. I think it should have come out more strongly, it should have been more overtly political."

He gives a final shrug: "I wish I could be like the screenwriter and just say I took it as a career move, but I can't."