Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

July 7, 2007

The Four Feathers: The Unanswered Question

Filed under: film, history — codesmithy @ 8:40 am

I watched the Four Feathers.  I thought it was a good film, although it had some failings of inherent to the genre.  In general, it focused too much on the British side of the conflict.  While Harry Faversham might be fighting to save his friends, his friends are suppressing a revolt of a local population.  As Harry asks earlier in the film:  “What does a godforsaken desert, in the middle of nowhere, have to do with Her Majesty the queen?”  A question that the film does not even make an attempt to answer.  I feel the question is not merely rhetorical, and deserves at least a start to an answer.

The historical context to the story, the British were fighting the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad.  The Sudan was under the rule of an unpopular Ottoman-Egyptian-British military occupation.  The Mahdi was interested in redeeming the Islamic world and wanted to start by establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state.  Although, there are no doubt complex reasons for the dislike, religious, ethnic and cultural.  One economic reason for the dislike among powerful Arabs in the region was the British trying to shut down the slave trade which dominated the economy and was controlled by an Arab minority.

In general, the British were not interested in the whole of the Sudan, they were mostly interested in a few cities along the Nile and ports along the Red Sea.  The Red Sea ports are important because of the British investment in Suez Canal, which it had taken control of on August 25, 1882.  (The events in the 2002 film take place in 1885).  And control of Nile is important for military and trade purposes.  The Sudan has rich mineral resources including: petroleum, natural gas, gold, silver, chrome, asbestos, manganese, gypsum, mica, zinc, iron, lead, uranium, copper, kaolin, cobalt, granite, nickel and tin.  Although, I also suspect that Sudan might have been a rich source of Ivory also, based on the fact that it is now becoming an emerging hub.

Although, the film highlights the plights of the British soldiers.  The British consistently showed military superiority.  At the battle of Abu Klea, the major battle depicted in the film, the Mahdists numbered 12,000 and the British numbered 1,500.  The British were out-maned 8 to 1.  In the end there were 158 British causalities and about 1,100 Mahdists, and the British won the battle.  Meaning for every British who lost a friend, there are probably 7 Mahdists who could also tell a tale.

So, “What does a godforsaken desert, in the middle of nowhere, have to do with Her Majesty the queen?”  In one sense, the answer is nothing.  The people living in the Sudan weren’t British or even Christian for that matter.  Sudan, in and of itself, was not that valuable.  However, the Madhists had to be fought.  Muhammad Ahmad wanted to form a fundamentalist Islamic nation across the region, including Egypt, and that threaten British control of the Suez.  As Major General Smedley Butler put it, war is a racket.  And that is why a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere has everything to do with Her Majesty the queen and the British Empire.

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