In the words of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, as interpreted by Charles Edwin Hatcher and Jackie Chan: War! Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! War! Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Except arms manufacturers and other defence contractors and disease and famine and destroyed families: war’s pretty good for those. And, in the case of the two films we’re talking about today, war is also good for covering attempts at pulling off bullion heists. So, y´know, swings and roundabouts.
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When this idea was pitched, I thought, obviously I’ve seen Kelly’s Heroes. Everyone’s seen Kelly’s Heroes. Turns out I haven’t seen Kelly’s Heroes, so you get to discover this along with me. I must have been thinking of The Dirty Dozen, although I’m sure at some point we’ll get to that and discover I’ve not seen that either. Must do better.
Anyway, this 1970 outing reunites director Brian G. Hutton, the original G, with Clint Eastwood after Where Eagles Dare, which I have probably confused with Escape to Victory or something. Set during the back nine of WWII, the U.S. Army pushes across occupied France with Nazis putting up stiff resistance. Eastwood’s Private Kelly is part of a unit on the frontlines, who captures a Nazi officer and during interrogation discovers that a small town bank, not overwhelmingly guarded, not all that far from their location, it stuffed to the gunwales with gold. Nazi gold! The best kind of gold.
Already disillusioned with the Army, having been scapegoated and demoted for other officer’s failures, and seeing his current Captain more concerned with looting a boat than the welfare of his men (although he does make sure to warn them not to loot, which is nice of him), Kelly decides to set about nicking the shiny stuff.
As part of his plan he’ll need to convince his platoon, de facto led by the gruff but dependable Master Sergeant “Big Joe”, Telly Savalas, who needs a fair bit of arm twisting, and a number of dodgier characters who don’t, like Don Rickles’ Staff Sergeant “Crapgame”, the fixer for the team, or the, well, I’m not quite sure what what they were going for with Donald Sutherland’ Sergeant “Oddball”. Hippy warmonger? Anyway, he has a tank, so let’s overlook his oddball character traits. Hey, I now understand why his nickname was oddball. How about them cowboys.
Having assembled a team that may or may not have numbered one dozen, cleanliness status unconfirmed, they push into enemy territory, variously sneaking and fighting their way past the Nazis, at cost, eventually chased by gung-ho Major General Colt (Carroll O’Connor), who’s misinterpreted their actions as a great patriotic push worthy of acclaim and the backing of the full division in an otherwise stalled advance.
It’s been a while since I watched a war film of the era, and it’s always a little shocking going back to the rather less dark and gritty aesthetic and narratives that pervaded back then. There’s glimmers of something with more bite to it here – the title is ironic given most of the character’s attitudes and their aims, and nothing is ultimately portrayed as a walk in the park despite skewing more towards comedy, or at least entertainment. It’s still the sort of film where walking on a land mine is not going to involve the special effects department giving you much more than some smoke and a boy that can jump a bit further than most.
It’s still of the time where we all agreed that Nazis were bad, and there was not very good people on both sides. Ironically, at this point in the war that’s probably a much truer statement than at Charlottesville, and it’s telling that the Germans that aren’t plain cannon fodder are perfectly reasonable and not frothing madmen.
Now, as mentioned, turns out I only saw this yesterday, so this is all a bit fresh. I’m not 100% sure how I’ll feel about it a year from now, or if I’ll feel compelled to revisit it. What I can say is that, well, the weight of history would seem to indicate that it’s good, and I enjoyed my time with it. It’s a rare near two and a half hours film that doesn’t feel like it should have had swathes cut from it, and Eastwood and Savalas make a great pairing. Rickles and Sutherland less so, skewing a little too far into goofy territory, particularly Sutherland, but that’s not his fault as much as the scripts.
Yes, it’s an entertaining heist romp, and its rather more jaundiced view of war while by no means unique at the time – this was the year of Catch 22 and MAS*H – but also by no means the most common wartime narrative keeps it within touching distance of contemporaneity. It didn’t rock my world, perhaps, but it made for a very diverting distraction from it.
Drew hated it, though. So bear that in mind.
Now this story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early 90s, just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. I only mention it ‘cos sometimes there’s a man – I won’t say a hero, because what’s a hero? – but sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talking about Marky Mark here, sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time ‘n place, he fits right in there, and that’s Marky Mark, in Kabala.
Well, a year after Sam Elliot’s Stranger told us his early 90s tale, David O. Russell, working on a screenplay adapted by himself from a story written in seven days by comedian John Ridley, brought us another tale of 1991, and the end of the Gulf War. The Iraqi military has surrendered, peace accords have been signed and half a million US troops are stuck in the middle of the desert, bored, fractious and, in the case of some, desperate for action, by which I mean itching to be allowed to kill someone.
In the midst of this we find George Clooney’s Major Archie Gates, a special forces soldier killing time avoiding his press escort duties by doing a little pressing of his own; Ice Cube’s Chief Elgin, setting his soldiers straight on what are the unacceptable and acceptable ethnic slurs to use for their defeated foes; Spike Jonze’s Conrad Vig, an ill-educated, ignorant racist redneck, desperate to shoot something, or someone; and Marky Mark Wahlberg’s Sgt Troy Barlow, a new father and slightly more together, less overt version of Vig.
In the midst of humiliating surrendering members of the Iraqi Republican Guard, Barlow forces a detainee to strip and finds a map concealed where, until mere moments ago, the sun did not shine. Conrad and his associates, soon joined by Major Gates, determine that the map shows the location of a bunker in which is hidden hundreds of millions of dollars of Kuwaiti gold, stolen by the Iraqi army, so they set about finding the gold to return it to its rightful owner. Ha! As if! There’s gold in them thar bunkers, and these boys are gonna take it.
Reaching the bunker takes little effort; the Iraqi soldiers are only interested in putting down the brewing uprising (you know, the one George H.W. Bush encouraged but then absolutely didn’t back up?), and the US soldiers are largely left to go about their business unimpeded. Things become complicated, though, when they discover Cliff Curtis’s Amir Abdullah being held hostage (yes, Cliff Curtis, noted Māori: but all of those brown-skinned people are the same, right?). Tensions immediately begin to rise outside of the bunker, and the tragedy that befalls Amir’s wife sparks a short gunfight in which the US soldiers are deemed to have broken the ceasefire and are now viable targets for the Iraqis. This gunfight is also the first consequence of an unexpected development in the group of would-be goldjackers: a growing conscience.
This rather inconvenient conscience changes the group’s plans somewhat, and they use their skills, their relative freedom of movement and some of their gold to help Amir and a group of Iraqi rebels reach the Iranian border and so avoid that whole nasty “getting executed or tortured by Saddam Hussein’s forces” thing that otherwise looms large in their future. Oh, and there’s the small matter of not also being court-martialled by their own army.
Three Kings is a pretty complex film, and certainly not without hypocrisy, or at least cognitive dissonance, both in its characters and its views. It’s dripping with historical irony (doubly so now, post-Iraq War, the aftermath of which has clearly been affected by not dealing with the Ba’athist regime, much more legitimately, at the first opportunity), not least the fact that much of the Republican Guard received training from the US during Iraq’s war with neighbouring Iran. And while it’s perhaps not even necessary, the film points out the hypocrisy of US intervention in oil-rich Kuwait while ignoring other injustices elsewhere, using Saïd Taghmaoui’s Said as the film’s voice of conscience, while he’s torturing Sgt Barlow. This particular scene also demonstrates another of the film’s dissonances: Russell takes pains to incriminate the political machine, not the military, and here Barlow is shown to be, at worst, a poor sap who bought his country’s propaganda but wasn’t given the insight to see the hypocrisy and the cynicism behind the war, nor ever expected to be capable of it. Yet still the soldiers, while being shown to be pawns in political machinations, cannon fodder for the military-industrial complex, are often shown to be ignorant, violent and xenophobic, and unworthy of sympathy.
That Three Kings can manage all of this, and still contrive to be funny AND make you care about the central characters (well, Conrad Vig aside) is really rather remarkable. Containing shades of MAS*H (the classic television series, not the awful Robert Altman film on which it was based), Westerns, and Saving Private Ryan amongst others, it’s a satirical anti-war war movie that evades easy genre-pigeonholing and perhaps only truly fails with a rather insipid, sentimental ending.
I wonder just how this would have turned out if George Clooney’s role had gone, as originally intended, to Clint Eastwood…
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