catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 13 :: 2003.06.20 — 2003.07.03


Every bullet counts

If it weren't for all the Oscar buzz that surrounded Three Kings, the first movie to take place entirely within the context of the Gulf War, I would have assumed that it impacted me so forcefully only because of my personal background. Since I'm 23 years old, the Gulf War is the only American war that I remember living through—making the images and issues in the film much more powerful to me than the ones from the dozen Vietnam and WWII movies I've seen. But the fact that older audiences are finding the film remarkable suggests to me that this film has something to teach audiences about war that we haven't seen before.

Three Kings takes place in the first days after the cease-fire was declared in the Gulf War, March 1991. After finding a map showing the secret location of a stash of gold bars Iraq stole from Kuwait, a handful of soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) decide to steal the gold back from Iraq and set themselves up for life. Things don't go quite as planned, of course, and the disaffected soldiers find themselves face to face with the plight of Iraqi freedom-fighters who are being slaughtered now that America has withdrawn from the war. What's most remarkable about the film, though, is that it has style to go along with its substance. There's a vein of humor that cuts across any solemnity, including blue-jeans-hoarding Iraqis and an exploding cow. There's a blurring of fiction and real life, like when Mark Wahlberg (the former Calvin Klein underwear model Marky Mark) is stripped down to his trademark skivvies, and when hip-hop rapper Ice Cube extols the virtues of easy listening. There are powerful dream sequences that show us first-hand what happens to a human body when hit by a bullet, and what it would be like for your wife and child to be killed during a bomb raid. All these stylistic flourishes are not just to show off, but to put you in the middle of the action, to give you a sense of the whip-fast pace, the dread, and the outright lunacy of war.

Still, you might be wondering, what does Three Kings have to say about war that we haven't seen before in Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Apocalypse Now, or Platoon? (Indeed, Saving Private Ryan marked the full transition of cinematic war from the rah-rah patriotism of the 40s and 50s to an admission of war's devastating chaos.) I'd have to say that what's new about Three Kings is that it shows the effects of every single bullet. I read in Newsweek that director David O. Russell kept saying, "Every bullet counts" on the set ("a billion times," according to Clooney), and I think he got his wish. We get to see what a bullet does to the human body, what it does to families, what it does to ideals. If Saving Private Ryan made our jaw drop with the mass human loss of D-Day, Three Kings takes the time to tell the story of nearly every person who is shot. It puts the heroes, the villains, and the bystanders on the same plane and renders them all as human beings. I once heard someone say that war can take place only when you see your opponent as less than a full human being, and if that's so, then Three Kings works to erode the very heart of war.

The other thing that makes Three Kings so special is that it's the first film to really question America's actions in the Gulf War, and the first film to make audiences question their own responses to the war. Certainly this was even more powerful for me, who'd never had to question my own actions while watching a Vietnam or WWII film because I was never a part of those wars. And it's really easy to come along after the fact and say, "Well, we did a really good thing in shutting down Hitler," or "We really never should have become involved in Vietnam." Of course we believe this: One war we won, one we lost. (In fact, these conclusions are so sacred to the American public that Pat Buchanan seemed to have killed any hope of becoming president by suggesting that maybe we shouldn't have become involved in WWII, and that Hitler was "an individual of great courage.") So before Three Kings, I was never forced to question my own actions during a war; I've only been able to sit in judgment of others.

I have to admit that my past actions don't stand up too well under scrutiny. Perhaps I could blame it on the fact that in 1991, I'd never seen a movie about war, never really contemplated it before. Perhaps I could blame it on the fact that the whole country was hooked on patriotism, that we were enjoying having a clear-cut enemy like Saddam Hussein and a real chance at winning that we didn't have in Korea and Vietnam. Perhaps I could blame it CNN, which made the Gulf War the first fully televised war, made it seem like an entertainment miniseries. But I can't bring myself to do it. What I remember about my own actions during the war horrify me with their coldness and lack of compassion. I turned the war into a game of collecting—I had three different newspapers' front pages from the day we declared war; I had two commemorative magazines detailing the entire campaign; I had 500 or so collectable cards with army vehicles, weapons, patch designs from each division, and military leaders like Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf. These were all mixed in with my baseball cards, football magazines, and sports-page clippings—in essence, I was pretending that the U.S. Army was my team and the Iraqis were the other team, and I was rooting for a Super-Bowl-size landslide victory.

I'd forgotten about most of this stuff until I saw Three Kings and was able to spend time with Iraqi citizens who had lost their homes, families, and businesses in our bombing raids. In America, I was tying yellow ribbons 'round the old oak tree (well, actually, I was putting yellow-ribbon cling-ons on my windows) while people's lives were lying in devastation. I was debating whether or not America was in the Gulf because of Hussein's tyranny or because of our oil interests, but either way my mind was with only our troops. I was blind to casualties on the opposing side, or, even worse, probably cheered them. I want to go back in time and say to that boy I once was: "Only evil can come of war. We fight the war because we believe that we can prevent a greater evil from taking place, but we must enter this awful conflict with gravity and grief for those whose lives we ruin." But I'm not sure that I would listen to myself, not sure that I would be mature or experienced enough to understand what I was talking about. Our lives are long enough to learn what is required of us, as a character says in Stephen Lawhead's novel Taliesin. "Long enough to learn what we need to learn, but not long enough to change anything," agrees a second character. "That is our flaw. Each age must learn everything afresh." Which is why, I suppose, the movie industry will keep making movies about war no matter how many times that ground has been tread—there will always be young people like me who are just setting foot there.

Discussion topic: The film version of the War in Iraq

War films that take place during a specific conflict always convey a particular commentary on the nature of that conflict as a whole, think of all of the Vietnam films that strive to convey the evil and chaos of that war. When/if a film is made about the war in Iraq, what themes do you predict will be prevalent? What would a film that supports the war look like? What would a film that condemns the war look like?

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