Three Kings: The Apocalypse Now of the Gulf War

(And that's not a compliment!)

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Well, I finally got around to seeing Three Kings, which got high marks from the critics. Roger Ebert, with whom I agree on a lot of reviews, saw similarities with Apocalypse Now. So did I. But Ebert thinks Apocalypse Now was one of the great films of all times. I think it was possibly the least realistic film ever made about Vietnam, in fact approaching the theoretical limits of unrealism. 

Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. And viewed as a retelling of that story, or as a Doctor Strangelove-like satire, Apocalypse Now is pretty good. (Military people think Robert Duvall's crazy officer who says "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" is a hoot.) The one thing Apocalypse Now is not is what everyone thinks it is - a film about the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now is about the Vietnam War about as much as Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado is about Japan.  To me, nothing demonstrates the general cluelessness of the American intelligentsia about the Vietnam War better than the fact that Apocalypse Now is taken seriously as a film about the Vietnam war. (Well, okay, there is one thing. I once met a major who served several tours in Vietnam. He came out of a family that included numerous academics. When he came home once, his academic relatives asked him "So what did you do on the weekends?")

In both Apocalypse Now and Three Kings the heroes venture behind enemy lines, encountering all the brutality and surrealism of war along the way. The plot of Three Kings is actually very (almost totally) derivative from a 1970 film Kelly's Heroes, starring Clint Eastwood, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland. In both films a scheming officer leads a gaggle of misfits behind enemy lines to steal looted gold from the enemy. Kelly's Heroes was a comedy. Three Kings has been described as starting off as a comedy, though the comedy was camouflaged well enough that I didn't spot it. There is some rowdy partying at the start, and a scene of a cow stepping on a cluster bomb, but none of it is particularly funny. Maybe you just had to be there. Oh wait, I forgot. I was there.

The would-be looters soon find themselves embroiled in the failed Shiite revolt and end up leading a large group of refugees to the Iranian border, ultimately sacrificing the gold (not all of it, we suspect) to get the refugees across. And here's the first problem. Get a map of the Persian Gulf. Travel by land to the Iranian border from Kuwait. See the big blue thing? That's the Euphrates River. How did they find a bridge that was (a) intact and (b) not guarded by the Iraqi Army?

I met some winners and losers in the Gulf War, but never did I find anyone as dysfunctional as some of the characters in Three Kings. In fact, I seriously doubt that people that messed up would be allowed into the military given the selection criteria that were in place at the time of the Gulf War. Apart from George Clooney, all the characters in the film are one-dimensional stereotypes. One goofy character is nicknamed "bolo" by the rogue officer (George Clooney), and one of the other soldiers asks what the name means. Absurd! Absolutely everybody in the U.S. Army knows what the slang term "bolo" means! It means someone who fails a task, by extension, any incompetent. Like the folks who made Three Kings.

A subplot involves an aging female newscaster who stumbles around trying to find the renegade team. She's with them when they are finally apprehended by the Army, but in the film postscripts we are told the team was honorably discharged thanks to her reporting. This is a feeble attempt to cast the media in a heroic role during the Gulf War. Ever since the Gulf War the media have been embarrassed at how easily they were managed by the military during the Gulf War, and this subplot is simply a device to pretend it wasn't so.

Probably the most offensive part of the film is a scene where one of the soldiers is captured and tortured by a young Iraqi captain. We find that he learned interrogation techniques from U.S. advisors during the Iran-Iraq war - nice touch of irony. The captain explains that his wife was maimed and his infant son killed by American bombing during the Gulf War. This is all supposed to show us that people on both sides of a war are really pretty much the same after all. The only thing ruining this tender moment, for viewers with attention spans longer than five minutes anyway, is that shortly before this, the captain saw one of his superiors murder a young woman in cold blood, and he did nothing to stop it. The captain allows that maybe Saddam is pretty evil, but he joined the Army to support his family better, and now he "can't get out." Can't get out? He's surrounded by people risking and losing their lives in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Saddam, and he "can't get out?" He can't join their cause? Give me a break.

The plain fact is that most wars are not morally symmetrical. The Civil War could perhaps have been averted if the South had been willing to give up slavery. Does anyone doubt it made a difference whether or not Hitler had triumphed? Even World War I, often touted as the type example of a pointless war, had more significance than most people admit. What might Europe be like with the Kaiser's Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire still in existence? Corrupt, stagnant and moribund. And the Gulf War was more asymmetrical than most wars. Iraq had squandered its resources on a futile war and saw Kuwait as a quick way to recoup its losses. Kuwait had done nothing whatever to Iraq except to be wealthy and vulnerable.

The dialogue between the captured American and his Iraqi torturer is supposed to convince us that the Iraqi is pretty much the same as his American enemy and basically a decent man driven to rage by the harm done to his family. But he's not a decent man. For openers, none of the Americans tortured anyone. Besides that, the Iraqi is a coward. He witnessed atrocities and did nothing, and had a chance to join the people fighting Saddam and did not. But most of all, he's a whore, like all the Republican Guards - as one of the educated members of Iraqi society, he's in the best position to oppose Saddam successfully, but instead sells himself.

The presumed moral symmetry of war is carried to the most absurd degree possible in Apocalypse Now. Marlon Brando, in the role of a renegade officer who has set up his own private army in the jungle, describes the incident that sent him over the edge. He had been part of a civic-action team that was inoculating children against polio. The team has just left a village only to be called back by a hysterical village elder. When the team returns to the village, they find that the Viet Cong have hacked off the arms of the children who had just been inoculated.

It seems to me that for anyone who opposed the Vietnam War, there are only two courses of action that are morally possible on viewing this scene. One is to stomp out of the theater and demand a refund because the film has lost all credibility (or take the video back to the store). The other, if the scene does have credibility, is to question seriously whether or not the opposition to the war was morally justified. This wasn't collateral damage caused by an errant air strike, or even soldiers killing civilians because they suspect they might be working for the enemy - this was deliberate maiming of completely innocent children, who are known to be innocent by their torturers. I can respect someone who reasons that the damage done fighting the Viet Cong outweighed the evil they committed. But I cannot respect anyone who can view this scene and not see a profound moral issue, and the fact that so little comment has been made on this point tells me that most of the people who opposed the Vietnam War on moral grounds were moral illiterates.

In describing his feelings, Brando utters some of the most ridiculous dialog ever put on film. He realizes the Viet Cong's ruthlessness gives them awesome power, and that it's coldly calculated. These men weren't monsters, he says, they had families of their own! I call this the Nazi-with-a-puppy school of philosophy. In some films Nazis have been shown adoring their pets, tending their gardens lovingly or listening rapturously to classical music. This is all to show us that "these men weren't monsters", that they had a "human side." The fact that the Nazis loved their pets, tended their gardens or listened to classical music proves only that they loved their pets, tended their gardens or listened to classical music. The fact that they dumped cyanide on innocent people made them monsters. Similarly, the fact that the Viet Cong loved their own families proved nothing, the fact that they hacked the arms off innocent children made them monsters. The fact that the Iraqi captain loved his wife and son proves only that he loved his wife and son. The fact that he witnessed atrocities and did nothing made him a coward and a monster.

The Gulf War could use a good movie. Courage Under Fire was one. Three Kings isn't.

Since I wrote this piece, Enemy at the Gates has come out, a film about a German and Russian sniper stalking each other during the Battle of Stalingrad. Enemy at the Gates is everything Three Kings is not - the characters have real depth and the historical accuracy is outstanding. There's a scene of German bombers coming in low over the ruins of Stalingrad that is as perfect an image of hell as you'll ever see. The characters have real flaws, they are all trapped in an evil system, Germans and Russians alike, and they resolve their dilemmas the way real people do, not by clumsy, sophomoric sermonizing. I have long thought a great film could be made about Stalingrad as a story of people pushed to their limits. I'd still like to see a story of the whole battle but Enemy at the Gates is a truly fine film.

I read a review of Enemy at the Gates that criticized the film for stilted dialog. The dialog is stilted and stiff. That's how people in Stalinist Russia talked, especially when it came to anything official. Moral: historical illiterates should not review historical films.

It's interesting to compare the adulation heaped on Three Kings with the scorn dumped on Behind Enemy Lines. Both films are riddled with ludicrous inaccuracies and one-dimensional characters. Clearly, the difference in response can have nothing to do with the technical merits of the films. The difference in response is due simply and solely to the ideological slant to the films: it's permissible to trash Behind Enemy Lines because it's a rah-rah patriotic film, but Three Kings is good because it supports a revisionist view of the Gulf War.

You can make an excellent film with historical realism. In fact the better the realism, generally the more excellent the film. Three Kings "works" solely because it reaffirms the prejudices of people who are embarrassed to think the U.S. might have been on the right side. Like the guy below.


Here's an exchange with someone who took rather violent exception to the comments above. In the excerpts that follow, his remarks are in black, mine are in blue, additional comments are in red.

After reading your opinions on Three Kings and Apocalypse Now I'm convinced that you MAY, just barely, know something about the military, but you know diddly about movies.  Give me a break! ...  Are you freebasing dairy products down there in Wisconsin?  SO WHAT?

This guy is actually more intelligent than his initial letter indicates.

I have plenty of rational rebuttal to make against that horrific review, but none of it will adequately capture the utter shock and disbelief I experienced while reading your reviews on Apocalypse Now and Three Kings. 

Consider the following points:

1)  Apocalypse now is not meant to be an accurate representation of the Vietnam War.  It's not a documentary.  The story didn't even originally take place in Vietnam, it took place in the Congo.  Thus, your disappointment that it didn't accurately reflect the Vietnam war is silly.  It's like accusing "The Cat in the Hat" of not accurately representing cats.  That's not what the story is about! 

Francis Ford Coppola is taking the viewer on a suspenseful journey up the river where reality is slowly shed away like the skin of a snake, until only the truly bizarre remains.  He's chugging along in his boat saying "Hey, suspend historical fact for a second, and take a ride with me.  This is a story about the human psyche, the desire to play god, dementia, redemption, humanism.  Come along on my boat ride and I'll ... hey, wait a minute!  Where's Steve?  Why isn't Steve Dutch on my boat?"

If the point is to shed reality and get to the surreal, why not simply leave the story set in the Congo? Set it in the Congo in 1960 or even now and it would work just fine. Why set it in Vietnam at all? If there is a point to be made by setting the story in Vietnam then the director has an obligation to provide at least minimal verisimilitude. The story line is preposterous. If Marlin Brando was a threat to the Viet Cong, then why mess with him at all? If he was a threat to our own forces why send only a single man? Some minimal attention to logic is necessary. 

Apocalypse Now wouldn't recognize Heart of Darkness if they tripped over it. Out in the real world people think Apocalypse Now is about Vietnam.

2)  You say: The plain fact is that most wars are not morally symmetrical. Not that I believe you can compare morals, much less judge them,

Total bullshit. If this were true you'd have no basis for condemning My Lai, No Gun Ri or the gang rape you criticize below.

but consider this:  Perhaps the history of war is written by the victors, so it always appears that the winning side was on the moral high ground.

If so, then the history of the Vietnam war is being written by the Vietnamese and the anti-war movement here in the U.S. Maybe we should re-examine whether or not they were really on the moral high ground?

And the Gulf War was more asymmetrical than most wars. Iraq had squandered its resources on a futile war and saw Kuwait as a quick way to recoup its losses. Kuwait had done nothing whatever to Iraq except to be wealthy and vulnerable.

What's this?  You mean the moral USA had a problem with a big country attacking it's neighbor unprovoked?  How does this affect the immorality of Iraq's treatment of Kuwait?  Wow, we're looking out for the small guys then, eh?  Pretty good of us.  Of course, there are wars in Africa where larger countries take their neighbors unprovoked, we don't seem to be losing much sleep over that.  Such as?? Rwanda was a civil war. So is the Congo. Libya is trying to saw off a chunk of Chad but we've been foes of Libya for years.  You're kidding yourself if you think we helped Kuwait because we were worried about unchecked Iraqi agression.  If Iraq had pulled off a Naval invasion of Sicily do you think we would've blinked.  Nope.  Why?  Because Sicily doesn't have a darn thing that we need. 

How does this affect the immorality of Iraq's treatment of Kuwait?  If we pay police to arrest criminals in our own self-interest, does that mean crime is not immoral?

Let me throw a few more phrases at you while you're busy congratulating America on it's morality:  My Lai, No Gun Ri, Wounded Knee, Trail of Tears, Iran Contra affair ... I don't really think we're in any position to be judging the morality of any other country, given our own history.

Just because I help somebody I know fight off a criminal doesn't obligate me to go around busting every criminal in town. Nor does it make helping my friend any less of a moral act. There are lots of folks who won't lift a finger to help anybody.

In an imperfect world you have to accept imperfect solutions. Was it immoral for us to oppose Hitler because it meant allying with mass murderer Stalin? Nobody in the Gulf War had the slightest illusion that Hafez Assad of Syria, our temporary ally, was any different from Saddam Hussein. That's one reason we pulled out as soon as we did - before the whole fragile alliance came apart.

Get a map of the Persian Gulf. Travel by land to the Iranian border from Kuwait. See the big blue thing? That's the Euphrates River. How did they find a bridge that was (a) intact and (b) not guarded by the Iraqi Army?

Was this really an issue that soured the whole movie?  If they included a twenty second scene that explained how they crossed the Euphrate would you have been happy?  C'mon man.  The story isn't about how three people travel from Kuwait to the Iranian border.  It's a story about the redemption of three (well, four) greedy thieves.  Three kings was not a documentary either.  Perhaps you were expecting the wrong kind of movie.

It shows the director didn't pay even minimal attention to detail and logic. If the Shiites wanted safety, they could have gotten that by merely heading south into Saudi Arabia, then getting transportation to Iran from there - but then there wouldn't have been a movie, would there? Sloppiness isn't excused by greatness, in fact it's a good reason to doubt whether the film is as "great" as people say it is. How does neglecting logical details improve the film? Take explaining the term "bolo." If there was a need to explain the term to the audience, somebody could have explained it to a reporter. It would have been logical, and would not have diminished the story in the least. Explaining it to a soldier - who would have understood it already - is simply sloppiness and poor attention to detail.

The only thing ruining this tender moment, for viewers with attention spans longer than five minutes anyway, is that shortly before this, the captain saw one of his superiors murder a young woman in cold blood, and he did nothing to stop it.

Ahhh ... perhaps he should have ... what?  Shot his supervisor, all of the soldiers still loyal to Saddam, and single-handedly taken out the tank?  Yeah ... I guess he could've tried.  Perhaps he didn't feel like dying that day. 

But he's not a decent man. For openers, none of the Americans tortured anyone. Besides that, the Iraqi is a coward.

Yeah, tell it to the four Rangers cooling their heels in Leavenworth for the rape of a 14 year old Kuwaiti girl (the village stoned her to death afterward by the way).  The Americans didn't torture anyone?  Don't count on it.  I read your biography, you know better than to make a blanket statement like that.  The Americans didn't torture anyone that we know about ... not that we'd publicize it if we did.

Okay, the context here is that none of the Americans in the film tortured anyone. This digression on your part suggests strongly you are incapable of reading anything without imposing your own biases on it. That in turn suggests your ability to read text or view films critically is pretty rudimentary and not nearly as sophisticated as you like to pretend. Since it's obvious that my review rankles you so much because it runs counter to your own ideology, I suggest you like Apocalypse Now and Three Kings because they reinforce your ideological prejudices and not because of any real merits in the films themselves. If technical brilliance alone counts, I hear Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are pretty good, too.

Birth of a Nation is an early film that unfortunately portrays the post-Civil War South as governed by black hooligans, and saved from total anarchy by the Ku Klux Klan. Triumph of the Will is a German documentary glorifying the rise of the Nazi Party. Both are considered technically brilliant and morally reprehensible.

Oh, by the way, seen any reports of Iraqis who tortured and raped Kuwaitis being punished? Why do you suppose we punish soldiers who do such things and they don't?

In reply, he asked whether it would be publicized in the American press even if it did happen. Well, a) yes it would, and it would certainly be touted by those who are opposed to our sanctions against Iraq, and b) what about the BBC and non-U.S. news agencies? If we don't publicize our mistakes then how does he know about My Lai or the gang rape, or for that matter the sergeant who raped and killed a little girl in Kosovo?

The Iraqi is a coward?  HAhahahhah.  I imagine he would have thought that the people sitting in the ocean, sending cruise missiles to blow up targets while never getting close enough to be fired on themselves were the cowards.

Anyway, there's a small taste of what I found disturbing about your movie reviews.  Not only do you in my opinion miss the entire point of both movies, but you mis-use their premise to launch an unfounded and unbased attack on anyone who has ever entered armed conflict with the USA.  Talk about blanket statements! Don't get me started on those Spanish in 1898! By the way, did you know the Mexican Army in 1845 was three times the size of the U.S. Army, much more combat-experienced, and most European observers were predicting a quick Mexican victory? Doesn't excuse us necessarily, but we weren't exactly picking on somebody defenseless, either. 

You furthermore classify the rest of the world, and other political ideologies  as less moral than those held by Americans. Show me exactly where I do that. Sorry, I do believe we are inherently more moral than some systems, like fascism (and the Baath Party that rules Iraq is nothing more than Arabic fascism - look up their history) 

You seem to have traveled the world fairly extensively ... did you actually SEE anything while you were doing it?  Yeah, in fact, I did. I saw corruption on a scale that makes the worst corporate corruption in America look like a church social, sexism that makes Larry Flynt look like a feminazi, and racism and ethnocentrism as bad as anything in the Jim Crow South. Want racism? Check out how Asian societies treat mixed-blood children. We're not as good as we sometimes like to pretend, but mostly my travels and reading have convinced me the most rabid critics of American society are grossly ignorant of history and the rest of the world. 

Or did the good ol' US Army completely sell you on the whole "We're always right, we're more moral, we never do wrong" line?  It's a big world.  Not every Nazi killed a Jew.  Not every Iraqi killed a Kuwaiti.  Not every American is a hero.   

Look. If you really doubt whether "you can compare morals, much less judge them," then it's perfectly moral (or amoral) for somebody to be xenophobic, racist and chauvinistic. So your indignation is nothing more than an opinion with no more (or less) validity than mine. So I suggest you really don't believe that quote at all. Then why did you say something so sophomoric? My experience suggests that most people who say you can't judge morals do so for two reasons:

1. Laziness - it's a tough problem to sort out. It's easier to pretend it can't be done

2. Cowardice - they're afraid their associates might brand them "judgmental" or "moralistic." Mostly, though, they're afraid they might end up having to change their values.

If you can't compare or judge morals, then there's no basis for saying My Lai was wrong. You obviously don't believe that. That means you must believe there is some basis, independent of your or my personal preferences, for saying My Lai was wrong. You have a moral and intellectual obligation to figure out what that basis is, and what it implies. Anything less is cowardice or laziness.

More Stimulus-Response

I greatly appreciated your Three Kings movie review and the accompanying discussion. I also had heard nothing but good things about the movie from both critics and film-goers. And I too give reverence to Roger Ebert's reviews, so when he picked Three Kings as the fifth or sixth best movie of the year, I anxiously rented it. Three Kings turned out to be my biggest movie disappointment of all time, in that I expected so much and not only got so little, but was so thoroughly offended. I was encouraged to see that someone else apparently hated it as much as I did and for all the same reasons. But I would like to add one particularly offensive scene that I didn't see mentioned in your list:

How about the scene where the Iraqi captain jams motor oil down Marky Mark’s throat from an oil container, that brought to mind one of those "Acme Birdseed" packages from a Roadrunner cartoon, to make the point that the evil Americans are taking this pure petroleum product from Mother Earth and bastardizing it and world civilization with our evil capitalism. That whole attempt to reduce the "Gulf War is About Oil" line to a heavy-handed, oversimplified, and preachy visual statement was insulting, and in my opinion epitomized the lameness of the entire movie. I mean, I'm sure high-minded Saddam, who the Captain serves, didn't invade a neighboring country because of the oil--it was a humanitarian mission, right? Where were the captain's morals when he was taking part in that invasion? 

I don't mind a film maker expressing any viewpoint or philosophy they want, but at least present it so that it's held together by a modicum of logic. Overzealous activism trumps sound reasoning once again.

Either energy is serious or it's not. If it is, then you may have to fight wars for it. Controlling resources is controlling people. If energy is not serious, then don't bother me with energy conservation and changing my lifestyle. But critics of the Gulf War can't have it both ways.

, Last Update 31 May 2020