David O. Russell's contemporary war film "Three Kings" (1999) is perhaps the most unconventional entry into the genre to date. Although all the hallmarks of the genre are present - military argot, khaki uniforms, explosions etc. - they are delivered in a unique and invigorating style. Furthermore, O. Russell has successfully managed to amalgamate several genres: Action, satire, farce, comedy and even Western; yet, what emerges is most definitely a war film. Albeit a war film which eschews the jingoism of more conventional Hollywood fare. However, in spite of its stylistic aggression "Three Kings" provides poignant and subtle commentary on the harsh realities of war and the injustice of American foreign policy.
Strangely, for a war film, there is no war; the action takes place after the "conflict" has ended. It follows the story of four soldiers who - in breach of their orders - conspire to reclaim the gold bullion stolen by Iraq from Kuwait. Having acquired a map from a surrendering Iraqi soldier, they set out on their mission to a remote village only to find that the people of the village are being held captive by Saddam Hussein's army. After witnessing a villager being callously executed (Left) in a dizzying sequence they are forced to choose between fleeing with the gold or staying to help the people that their own country has betrayed. I feel that the film follows a classical narrative pattern but with a bitter twist in its tail; one of the main characters is killed and the "Three Kings" who remain are discharged from the army. The opening sequence is vital in establishing the tone, themes and the importance of setting. "Three Kings" is set in the aftermath of the Gulf War and begins with a wide shot of the Iraqi desert - completely flat, barren seemingly endless - into which reservist soldier Troy Barlow strays. The setting is indicative of the emotional state of the allied soldiers after the war; they feel impotent and extremely empty. They have no power over the treatment of the Iraqi people due to George Bush's decision to ignore their mistreatment. The events that follow encapsulate the absurdity of the conflict. Barlow spots an Iraqi soldier signalling in the distance and the ineptness of the US. Army is conveyed in his line: "Are we shooting people or what?"
Yet, while the Arab's life hangs in the balance, the camera rapidly pans round and zooms in (In a style which evokes the memory of grainy CNN war reports) to reveal the other members of his squad who are too busy offering each other gum or looking for grains of sand in their eyes to notice. Barlow is forced to shoot the Iraqi, and as he climbs the sand mound to inspect the damage, the pace of the edits is rapidly increased to simulate Barlow's exhilaration - After all, this is an office worker, an ordinary guy who has been thrown in to such extraordinary circumstances. Finally, as Barlow reaches the top, we cut to the fallen Iraqi's POV (Point of View) and watch our ruthless killer stare blankly at us. By doing this, O. Russell forces the audience to appreciate the plight of the Iraqi soldier who - in a lesser war film - would be dismissed as the evil enemy. Perhaps this is an attempt by O. Russell to re-sensitise an audience to the violence they witnessed from the comfort of their armchairs only nine years ago.
Indeed, "Three Kings" challenges stereotypes at every opportunity. Male white Americans have always dominated the war genre both on and off-screen. Additionally, The opposing side is generally seen as our enemy and nothing more. However, David O. Russell has endeavoured to represent all races and genders in an even-handed and rational way. Perhaps the strongest character in "Three Kings" is news reporter Adriana Cruz; refreshingly hard bitten and world-weary, she refuses to degrade herself in anyway to scoop a major story. Her 'no nonsense' attitude and biting dialogue - "At least I don't research my story's on my back lady" - is an age away from the forlorn 'gal back home' females which are du rigueur in less modern war films. Arab stereotypes in particular are attacked head on by the Director. An Iraqi interrogator tells the moving story of how the Americans accidentally bombed his baby son in his cot while he slept. In "Three Kings" our enemies are given a face - one not unlike our own; they too have sons and daughters and suffer through the conflict. In spite of this, colloquialisms such as "Towel Head" and "Camel Jockey" are used by the soldiers to describe the Iraqis to begin with. However, this makes their metathesis all the more surprising and therefore satisfying.
When analysing style it is important to mention the efforts of David O. Russell throughout the film to subvert audience expectation in terms of action and violence. He strives to re-sensitise audiences who have been fed on the excessive, stylised violence of the 80's and strips the 90's 'hipness' from gun-play that films like Pulp Fiction promote. For example, rather than have huge battle sequences with wave upon wave of bullets fired, there are only fifteen or so in the entire film. This is illustrated best in the film's pivotal sequence wherein Gates' and his band of highwaymen find the gold taken from Kuwait in a bunker concealed within a rural village. Firstly, as the allied troops move into the village, the film stock is changed to Ektachrome (A film often used in stills cameras) which makes for wildly over-saturated colours. Before this the film had been shot in very bleak, pallid tones; here the director establishes how alien this locale is to the allies. Soon things begin to go awry and a village woman is executed before the Americans. This is the turning point of the film - if the Americans had not witnessed it then they would have fled earlier with the gold. O. Russell deepens the impression of this moment on the audience by presenting it as barely as possible. Audiences are used to the amplified bangs and explosions of action films; as the villager is shot, there is a moment of near silence - all that can be heard is the soft thud of the bullet. The audience has no wall of sound to hide behind; they are forced to experience the incident in a more visceral and realistic sense. In addition, as the woman is taken away from her family due to her incessant cries of "don't go", the editing is rapid. This augments a feeling of urgency and tension. Yet her shooting is presented in one long slow-motion shot of about five seconds (additionally, it is shot in a Dutch/ skewed angle). By using this technique O. Russell successfully underscores the brutality of the act. In the confusion that ensues each side fires shots but not in a chaotic way. Each bullet fired is followed in the previously mentioned documentary style from barrel to impact. In this way O. Russell reminds the audience of the destructive power of a single bullet. Finally, Gates executes the Iraqi leader in a powerfully realised sequence which mirrors the previous; flecks of blood spatter his face sickeningly as he does so. The sequence is brought to its climax as Gates looks down on his fallen enemy (Which cleverly resembles the opening). A time lapse shot depicts clouds tumbling past overhead while he stands motionless. The message is clear: His world is changing. Things can never be the same.