Violence, Greed, and American Hypocrisy
An Analysis of David O. Russell’s Three Kings
When a film combines aspects of several different genres, the outcome can be disastrous and disjointed, or it can be original and thought-provoking. In Three Kings, director David O. Russell successfully combines elements of comedy, action, drama, and war genres to create a film that is both meaningful and imaginative. Three Kings reveals how political and cultural differences affect humanity and people’s ability to understand one another. The film attempts to alter people’s perceptions and assumptions by allowing them to see violence and war from another perspective. Utilizing various formalistic techniques, David O. Russell changes the way a typical war film would both look and feel to create a film that is thematically complex and visually stimulating.
Throughout the course of the film, Russell introduces highly stylized filming techniques which draw attention to themselves and the scenes in which they appear. Before the film even begins, the audience is presented with a disclaimer which states “[t]he makers of Three Kings used visual distortion and unusual colors in some scenes of this film. They intentionally used these unconventional techniques to enhance the emotional intensity of the story line” (Three Kings). Russell wants to make his audience perfectly aware that they are about to see a film that utilizes experimental techniques.
As Three Kings opens, the mise en scène is plain with a dried up lakebed stretching for miles against an opposing blue sky. The de-saturated color of the film creates a world that is washed out and dilapidated. From scene to scene, the editing shows significant contrast depending on the setting and nature of the scene. Russell is constantly testing his audience’s emotions. After an initial display of violence towards a lone Iraqi soldier, the film turns in a completely different direction and cuts to celebratory American soldiers singing “I’m proud to be an American.” The audience is then introduced to Major Archie Gates who cynically says, “I don’t even know what we did here.” As he stands in the foreground, a helicopter lifts off the ground in slow motion literally leaving Gates in the dust. At this point in the film, Russell utilizes slow motion to capture Major Gates’s feelings of detachment and frustration.
Unlike typical war and actions films, Three Kings takes an unconventional approach to violence and has considerably less violence in the beginning of the film. Instead, Russell chooses to “re-sensitize” his audience drawing attention to every explosion and every bullet fired (Three Kings, Commentary 2000). Each display of violence is purposely exaggerated to make an impact. Russell’s usage of sound, special effects, and camera movement are directly related to the violence being presented.
The sound of the guns firing is noticeably more natural and hushed leaving the audience with an unfamiliar and unsettling feeling. When Russell uses special effects to show the internal effects of a bullet wound, the audience is left with the lasting image of a bullet ripping through the stomach and gallbladder of Troy Barlow. Another memorable scene takes place at the bunker when the woman is shot in the head and is shown falling to the ground in slow motion. This is a major turning point in the film in which the four American soldiers must decide if they should help the Iraqi people or run off with the Kuwaiti gold. The gun fire that follows involves distinct and strategic editing as Russell utilizes slow motion tracking and a zoom lens (Three Kings, Commentary). The camera follows each bullet as it leaves its gun and shows who each shot intends to hit. Russell does not simply use random chaotic gun fire, but rather he chooses to show every aspect of this violent chain of events.
As chaos ensues, time suspends for a moment as Gates and Chief are each shown from a low angel “power shot” perspective with superimposed clouds passing overhead. At this moment in the film, everything has changed, and Gates and Chief have taken on a more powerful position. The ceasefire has been broken, and stealing the gold is not quite as simple as they thought it would be. From this point on, the violence in the film is more overt and much more typical of an action or war film. The violence and action that follows, however, add to the story as opposed to taking attention away from it.
Russell’s narrative style is distinct and creative. Because he is able to convincingly combine elements of action and comedy, Russell easily makes fun of the violence at times. Aside from the Iraqi soldier’s head flying three feet into the air and the exploding cow, Russell even has Conrad complaining of a splinter in the middle of the film’s most violent and intense action sequence. Russell’s ability to intertwine dramatic and lighthearted subject matter allows him to present subversive opinions without appearing too forceful. He merely asks his audience to consider whether the violence or the war itself is actually accomplishing anything.
Although violence is widespread throughout the film, it is not a fundamental theme on which the film relies. Violence is, however, very closely associated with the themes of American hypocrisy and greed. When the Iraqi soldier is interrogating Troy, he asks him about Michael Jackson and says that the United States “makes the black man hate himself.” When the soldier asks Troy if the United States intends to help the people in Iraq, Troy responds with the truth. But when asked about the reasons behind the war, Troy’s response is hypocritical. The Iraqi soldier then forces a CD case into Troy’s mouth attempting to pour oil down his throat. This key shot in the film speaks volumes about the reasons behind the war. This shot criticizes the United States for its greed and need for “stability.” It emphasizes the United States’ obsession with consumerism and capitalism, and it ridicules the Unites States for being so self-interested. The irony of this scene is that greed is what put Troy into this position in the first place. Greed is what originally motivates the American soldiers to go on their quest for the Kuwaiti gold. The shot of Troy being drowned with oil not only represents the reasons and the politics behind the war, but it also shows the hostility that exists between the soldiers and the cultural differences that divide them.
From the beginning of the film, cultural differences are extremely obvious. There is not only a language barrier but a complete disregard for the Arab people. Although war itself tends to completely disregard humanity, the American soldiers treat the Arabs with no respect. Racial slurs like “towel head” and “camel jockey” pour out of the American soldiers’ mouths along with other degrading comments. To the American soldiers, the Iraqi soldiers and civilians are not people. The American soldiers cannot relate to them or understand what they must live through every day. Many of the Iraqi rebels originally look to American soldiers for help, but the four American soldiers are still only concerned about the gold. Major Gates explains that necessity is the most important thing in life, “as in people do what is most necessary to them at any given moment” (Three Kings). This key line is Gates’s justification for taking the gold saying that no one will stop them because what is most necessary to Saddam’s army is to put down the uprising. But this same line eventually explains the four soldiers’ rationale when they must choose between either their own self-interest or the moral repercussions of leaving the Iraqi civilians to be slaughtered by Saddam’s army.
In an effort to forge an understanding between the American soldiers and the Iraqi civilians, Russell decides not to stereotype his Arab characters. Rather, he gives them dimension and a voice. In the cave after the tear gas has been shot off, the Arab people become human and real to the soldiers. They come to find out that Amir attended Bowling Green, and Conrad is fascinated with their holy shrines, so much so that he later asks to be taken to one when he is dying. At this point in the film, the American soldiers are experiencing vulnerability for the first time. Initially, the four American soldiers risk their lives for the Iraqi civilians, but the Iraqis save them in return. And the racial tension that existed in the beginning of the film slowly starts to fade away.
Russell’s ability to resolve these complex issues without being blatantly preachy is the reason his film is so moving. With such strong themes, Three Kings is plot driven and does not rely on its characters as much as another film might; however, each of the main characters changes dramatically through the course of the film. In the beginning, the character of Major Gates is both disconnected and apathetic. He feels as though the war accomplished nothing. But in helping the Iraqi civilians cross over into Iran, he can leave his military career knowing that he made a difference in those people’s lives. When Troy is first introduced, he is ignorant, cocky, and hypocritical. He is perhaps the greediest in that even after Gates decides they should help the Iraqi civilians, Troy still thinks only of the gold. After being held captive in the bunker, however, he sees the war from another perspective. He recognizes the similarities between himself and the Iraqi soldier who is torturing him, and when he is given the chance to kill that same soldier, he chooses not seek to revenge. Rather, he identifies with the Iraqi soldier and begins to understand the perverse effects of war. In developing this understanding between two soldiers fighting for different sides, Russell creates sympathy for both characters leaving his audience with feelings that are far from patriotic.
The character of Conrad starts out uneducated, offensive, and perhaps the most racist. His devotion to Troy is genuine, but his relationship with Chief is unstable throughout the film. Chief is somewhat condescending and has little respect for Conrad due to his lack of education. But eventually Chief is able to accept Conrad and forgive him for his ignorance.
Before Conrad dies, he asks to be taken to a shrine where his sins will be forgiven. Fearing that he is going to go to hell, Troy assures them that they did the right thing. When Conrad dies, he is still uneducated, but in a day, he has come to appreciate different aspects of the cultures that he spoke so negatively about.
In Three Kings, David O. Russell creates a world of confusion, comedy, and calamity using stunning visual elements and complex themes. He explores the ramifications of the Gulf War and creates a film that is still relevant today. His ability to alter his audience’s perceptions and show war from another perspective results in a compelling film. Instead of blatantly presenting an anti-war testament, Russell chooses instead to question certain aspects of war. In bringing attention to the corruption and hypocrisy that plague foreign policy, Russell emphasizes that the struggle for freedom and power is never-ending and will continue to hamper the world’s civilizations and societies until peace and equality truly exist.