“Are we shooting people or what?” a soldier, Troy Barlow (Mark Warhlberg), yells across a desert plain in the opening scene of Three Kings. The camera whips around to show troops trading gum and checking each other’s noses for blockages. It’s 1991, the Gulf War has ended and US soldiers are cleaning up loose ends. Barlow fires on a man carrying a weapon while waving a white flag and kills him. The soldiers crowd around the dying man and one of the battalion remarks: “Dang, I didn’t think I’d see anyone shot in this war”, while others scramble to get pictures with the body. Welcome to the dawn of a new age of modern war films.
Three Kings ushered in a wave of films depicting, and questioning, modern warfare. Black Hawk Down, Jarhead, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty all followed this landmark film. Prior to ’99, American cinema was dominated by World War II epics and Vietnam War era allegories for the madness of conflict. On the edge of the new millennium it was time to reflect on the war that still befuddled people, the Gulf War. WWII has the glory of stopping Hitler while Vietnam let America bleed out with lasting trauma to national pride; as reflected in the brilliant films made about the time period. America overcompensated for the wounds of Vietnam with The Gulf War – they needed a win – but it would exemplify their role as the ‘world police’ while protecting President George H. W. Bush’s relationship with Saudi Arabia (which is code for oil).
The Gulf War occurred after Iraq invaded its neighbour Kuwait in 1990. Iraq resisted the United Nation’s demands to leave Kuwait, so coalition forces, led by America, attacked to remove Iraqi troops and protect Saudi Arabia. The coalition began to boot Iraqi battalions from Kuwait with an aerial and naval bombardment that lasted 5 weeks. It was followed by a ground assault that led to a quick victory for the coalition forces, who liberated Kuwait and charged into Iraqi territory. The coalition stopped its advance, and called a ceasefire 100 hours after troops marched in. If any soldier went to the Gulf War looking for action, it was over before it even started. There to witness it all was the new 24-hour news channel, CNN. Suddenly, it became a media war and special forces troops weren’t all assigned to the battlefront, they were escorting journalists chasing down good news stories.
"Suddenly, it became a media war and special forces troops weren’t all assigned to the battlefront, they were escorting journalists chasing down good news stories."
You’re dropped into the land of confusion in Three Kings. Writer and director, David O. Russell, frames the boredom and misunderstanding of the Gulf War. A group of soldiers (Wahlberg, George Clooney, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze) attempt a gold heist while the American military tries to figure out what to do next after accomplishing their mission. Russell creates a hyper-masculine world where everyone is posturing toward being a soldier but no one has seen any real action. There are scenes with soldiers dancing and having water fights; it’s a vacation.
Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Jonze represent soldiers who enlisted to escape their dreary day jobs. Russell cuts to Wahlberg dealing with a broken office printer; Ice Cube wrangles overloaded suitcases as an airport baggage handler; and Jonze blasts stuffed toys in his backyard with a shotgun. War used to be hell, now it’s an escape. These characters are so unsatisfied with life that they go to war in the desert only to find nothing. When something does eventually happen, like the discovery of a hidden map leading to hidden bunkers of gold, one of the soldier remarks: “I didn’t join the army to pull pieces of paper out of people’s asses”. Russell uses the Gulf War to posit a modern dissatisfaction with life that extends to war.
The disillusionment with the Gulf War is personified by Clooney’s Major Archie Gates, a special forces soldier turned media escort who keeps busy by trading sex for stories with a journalist (Judy Greer). Gates has run out of reasons to justify the war to reporters, or was there ever any justification at all? All that remains is puff pieces for hungry TV crews and he’s sick of it. When Gates hears of a chance to get something out of the pointlessness of the Gulf War, his motivation kicks in. The bunkers contain stashes of gold Saddam Hussein stole from Kuwait during the war. Gates justifies the heist as a way of skimming a little off the top of the guilty parties complicit in starting the conflict. It’s also a way of vindicating their deployment and breaking the boredom.
"Russell uses the Gulf War to posit a modern dissatisfaction with life that extends to war."
Russell stacks the top of Three Kings with a satirical approach to the Gulf War, but the implications of America’s involvement hits once Gates’ crew deal with the fallout. Anti-Saddam dissidents get executed by the Iraq army as America withdraws their ground forces. The Iraqi people were given a confidence boost by America to rebel against their leader but are left to do it alone at the end of the Gulf War – it’s all responsibility and no care. Gates and his crew experience it first hand and join the rebels to fight back. Russell contrasts the perceived tedium of the war in the beginning with the effects it has on the people living in the region. Russell brilliantly scrutinises the perceptions of victory when it comes to war.
At the core of Three Kings it examines the hollow victory of the Gulf War. The battle may have been thrift, but the political interference in the lives of the Iraqi people had casualties who were hidden behind victorious grandstanding. Gates’ crew find the action they were looking for, but are not prepared for the reality of the war they thought was a bore.
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Watch 'Three Kings'
Wednesday 8 November, 8.30pm on SBS VICELAND
Available after broadcast at SBS On Demand for a limited time