“Just tell me what we did here!” -Archie Gates
The Greatest Generation gets World War II, the Boomers get saddled with Vietnam, and what does Generation X draw? The freaking Gulf War. The war so nice, we fought it twice.
Films on the Gulf War were few and far between, partly because it was such a short engagement from start to finish, but also because it felt more like a sporting event than a shooting war. By the time Three Kings hit theaters in 1999, that three day turkey shoot in the sand was ancient history. Zoom in, restore the status quo ante, zoom out. Less than 300 Americans died, which is also how many die every three days or so on our freedom loving highways, so it didn’t much sink into the national consciousness. Being set in the Gulf War actually gave Three Kings an off-the-wall setting at the time, feeling almost quaint in the way it stirred up political blood eight years dry. I remember seeing it in theaters, not yet twenty, impressed by the film but unable to suppress a lingering doubt as to the salience of the film’s bitter conclusions about a forgotten war. Two years later history dropped the other shoe and now ten years on Three Kings rings truer than it did when it first came out.
Three Kings represents one of George Clooney’s first real forays into the intelligent and politically messaged films that have become his signature in the last decade. Before Three Kings, his career trajectory was essentially: “ER” hotness -> Batman & Robin -> Gay Dog on “South Park” -> presumably a few romcoms and then back to a TV role. Instead, Three Kings, along with the previous year’s Out of Sight, was the pivot that swung Clooney’s career down the road that led to Good Night & Good Luck, Syriana, etc. Three Kings also saw the emergence of Marky Mark as a legitimate actor sans prosthetic, Jamie Kennedy actually being amusing, Spike Jonze in a rare appearance, and Ice Cube playing Ice Cube.
The film opens in the closing days of the first Gulf War, when men were men and wars lasted a proper three days. There is confusion on the battlefield, are they supposed to be shooting the Iraqis or taking them prisoner? No one really knows, but once a map is found smuggled up the bum of one of the fleeing Republican Guards, the central plot lurches into motion: dart out into the dessert and steal one of Saddam’s caches of gold bullion before the invading American army gets organized enough to lock down on any looting. It’s Kelly’s Heroes updated for the Gulf War, with the same basic plot, the cynical dismissal of the conflict in general, and the dark humor to pull off the combination of heist, war epic, and road trip.
Three Kings is not subtle at face value, pouring oil down Mark Wahlberg’s throat when he can’t say why America is really fighting the Iraqis in the first place. But it’s clever in that it works on a second level as well: the specific story of the protagonists precisely echoes the overall story of American involvement in the region. America might be there with guns because of the oil, but Gates and his team are there with guns because of the gold. Even as Gates cynically dismisses the war, he chases after the exact same thing himself.
The film surprises us by allowing Gates and his team to recover the gold fairly quickly and then breaking off into a political foray. They succeed in their heist only to stumble across one of the open dirty secrets of American history, up there with Prague and Budapest, the inconvenient bits of reality that don’t make it into the shining narrative. America exhorted the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein, but stopped its victorious army at the border and watched as Saddam’s helicopters slaughtered the revolting crowds. In the film, Gates sacrifices the gold in order to save some of the rebels, getting them across the Iranian border ahead of Saddam’s repression. They could have simply turned their backs on the rebels and walked away with the pile of gold about an hour into the film. The fact that the film forces the moral issue is what lifts it above being simply a retread of a dozen other heist films crossed with a minor war.
If it hadn’t been for certain events of the last decade, Three Kings would probably be completely forgotten by now along with the war in which it was set, but our current world lends Three Kings an eerie prescience along with its heaping of dark humor.
“The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.” -Archie Gates
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.