For a plot synopsis of the fifth big-screen adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel, let’s turn to Heath Ledger: ”Rolling around in the desert, long f—ing hair, beards, dirt, living in jails squashed with 200 prisoners, chewing up food and spitting it into someone’s mouth, cradling my best friend when he’s blind in the middle of the war, him not knowing it’s me, me discovering letters on him from my fiancée.”
Um, maybe we should try instead. In late-19th-century England, a soldier (Ledger) resigns on the eve of a battle in the Sudan. His fiancée (Kate Hudson) and three military buddies send him the titular feathers as a sign of cowardice. Unbeknownst to them, however, he has a change of heart, travels to North Africa, and goes undercover to help his regiment. If it sounds epic, it is. ”The film people most compare this to is ‘Lawrence of Arabia,”’ says director Shekhar Kapur (”Elizabeth”), who’s quick to point out an important difference. ”’Lawrence of Arabia’ took two years to shoot; we had three months.”
For the cast, the weeks spent filming in the Moroccan desert seemed like a lifetime. ”We were living off three hours of sleep a night,” says Ledger, who stepped into the lead when Jude Law decided to make ”A.I. Artificial Intelligence” instead. ”It was literally like [the ‘Apocalypse Now’ documentary] ‘Hearts of Darkness’ toward the end.”
For those who lasted that long, that is. Producer (and former studio head of Paramount, which shared the costs with Miramax) Stanley Jaffe bolted during preproduction after a major falling-out with Kapur. ”I was less reverent to the British and colonialism; Stanley was more of the opinion that we should just tell the base story,” explains the director. (Kapur and Jaffe haven’t spoken since, but Jaffe will still be credited on the final film.) Miramax, concerned over budget overruns, also sent over two producers midway through filming to make sure the production didn’t, as Kapur puts it, ”spiral out of control.”
One way Kapur put forth his political agenda was by cheating on the costumes. ”The [British] desert corps actually were in blue and gray uniforms,” he admits. ”I chose to put the corps in red because it looks like it doesn’t belong in the desert.” But audiences will likely notice something much eerier: As an undercover Arab, Ledger, dirty and unshaven, looks uncannily like ”American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. ”Oooh, you gave me the chills,” says ”Amistad”’s Djimon Hounsou, appearing as a slave who befriends Ledger, when asked of the resemblance. ”I never made the connection until you said it. You’re spooking me out.”
For his part, Kapur says he doesn’t mind if audiences are distracted. ”People who see this film say it looks like Afghanistan: The Casbah looks like Afghanistan, the people running around could be Afghans,” he says. ”We shot it so much before Sept. 11, but now that I read about Palestine and al-Qaeda, I realize how prophetic this film was.”
THE LOWDOWN Could be an Oscar contender — if audiences take to a violent, lavishly mounted adventure tale that echoes the troubles in Afghanistan.