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/ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT/CINEMA-USA: ‘Three Kings’ Takes on Myths of Gulf War

NEW YORK, Nov 2 1999 (IPS) - Before David O. Russell’s Gulf War movie ‘Three Kings’ opened here last month, the young writer-director already had fended off criticism from parties as diverse as US Muslim anti-discrimination groups and Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Muslim groups worried that the movie, a fictionalised account of four US soldiers in the 1991 Gulf War attempting to retrieve a stash of treasure near the Iraqi city of Karbala, would indulge in “Arab-bashing.”

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) noted that a draft of the film’s script had included offensive references to “rag-heads,” among other slurs.

Bush, the leading Republican contender for next year’s presidential elections, had a more direct worry: he was concerned that the movie would make the Gulf War policy of his father, former President George Bush, look bad.

Russell obviously decided that the film would be its own best defence, and gave special preview screenings to CAIR and to Governor Bush. One can imagine that the Muslim activists went away satisfied, and that the governor did not.

For all the heroics by the US soldiers in their ill-fated pursuit of stolen Kuwaiti gold, ‘Three Kings’ is one of the more subversive American movies to come out in recent years, with a surprisingly balanced view of Iraqis and a jaundiced look at the Gulf War.

Coming from no less a US corporation than Disney, the movie caused a genuine surprise – and an unwelcome one at that – for supporters of former President George Bush.

As the movie’s hero, Cpt. Archie Gates (played by George Clooney, better known for playing ‘Batman’), explains to his three colleagues, the chaos that surrounds them after the Gulf War is the result of the Bush administration’s policy to encourage revolt against Saddam Hussein.

“The United States promised to support the rebels, and they didn’t,” he says. “Now they’re being slaughtered.”

For the US soldiers – who experienced little fighting in the “war” itself – the main surprise is that Hussein’s forces and Iraqi rebels are more concerned with fighting each other than to notice the presence of the Americans.

When the rebels encounter Gates’ squad – Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin (played by rapper Ice Cube), Troy Barlow (the former rapper Mark Wahlberg) and Conrad Vig (director Spike Jonze) – their first request is for food. Later, Iraqi women rush to retrieve milk from a truck which the pro-Saddam troops have shot up.

Russell shows the peculiar dislocation the US soldiers feel after they wander out of their camp to hunt for the rumoured treasure with an off-kilter, exciting series of camera techniques.

The film is saturated so that the desert looks unusually pale; the chaos of the atmosphere around the soldiers includes everything from a convoy of luxury cars and booby-trapped toy footballs to an exploding cow and a flood of milk; and even bullets are followed on their course inside a human body.

The visual effects correspond to the loopy insanity of the script, written by Russell from a story by John Ridley. Iraqi troops actually help the US soldiers carry out gold from a bunker – but only to get the Americans to leave so that the Iraqis can get back to crushing any revolt.

The Iraqis themselves seem awash in US commodities: one soldier tries to bribe his way out of trouble with a stolen food processor, while others idly watch the Rodney King beating on videotape and wonder why Michael Jackson tries to look white.

Meanwhile, an obnoxious US television reporter – played by Nora Dunn – scours the scenery for worthwhile stories, only being moved to emotion by the sight of oil-drenched birds.

For all the stylish touches, the film eventually settles down into a familiar mode, as Gates and his crew opt to help Iraqi rebels desperate to flee into Iran for safety from the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard.

Clooney, in an appealingly cynical turn, succeeds both at undercutting the John Wayne archtype – at one point he mockingly notes that the US troops are so effective because “we have the cool flashlights” – while playing a modern-day John Wayne role.

Ice Cube, a rapper normally typecast as a tough street kid, brings some deadpan humour to his role as an airport baggage- handler-turned-soldier, as he plays a character who ultimately even joins in Muslim prayer (presumably soothing anyone offended by the comments about “rag-heads”).

Jonze is funny as a redneck Southern soldier, while Wahlberg convincingly depicts someone utterly confused by the shifting political landscape around him.

The film’s ability to shift sympathies at short notice is most apparent, however, in the small role played by Said Taghnaoui of an Iraqi torturer, who is equally capable of dispensing electric shocks to Barlow and of mourning his infant child, who was killed in the US bombing.

Ultimately, Russell’s film points to the fact that war produces victims on all sides, and makes villains out of all officials – from the smug Iraqi officer, who waits for the Americans to depart so that he can crush the anti-Saddam rebels to his US counterparts, who won’t lift a finger to protect the Iraqi fighters.

The film contains many ironies – not least of which is the fact that the plot hinges on the protagonists making an escape across the border to Iran.

Who would have thought the day would come when a US film depicts Iran’s holy city of Qom as the promised land? Just for that bizarre concept, ‘Three Kings’ may be one of the strangest action films to come along in quite a while.

It is also possibly the best US war film since such similarly messy masterpieces as Robert Altman’s ‘MASH’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now.’

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