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Three Kings

There were two things I kept pondering while watching this film:
a.)Why isn’t anyone wearing helmets?
b.)Why is it called Three Kings?

So far I have no satisfactory answer to any of the questions, but will welcome any wild speculations.

The film starts directly after the Gulf war cease fire with four protagonists, lead by Archie Gates (George Clooney), trying to locate some stolen Kuwaiti gold. The map to the buried treasure is found by Troy Barlow (Mark Walhbergh) in the ass of an Iraqi prisoner, and after a collection of high-jinks and cool comments you are forgiven to think that this is indeed a heist-film – following in the tradition of Kelly’s Heroes and sundry. But when the four arrive at the small Iraqi village the film becomes slowly more and more serious until it abandons its heist film formula for the template of the combat film. The film's turn for the serious is marked by two, intercut scenes - one is where Troy is tortured and the other shows Archie Gates among the refugees at prayer after the geeky southerner (Spike Jonze)is killed. If feels like the film wants to say: "You were only kidding yourself when you thought war was fun - in fact it is serious and awful and children die."

Interestingly enough this transition is marked visually as well. In the heist-film part the cinematography is done part handheld-camera, documentary style - and part fast-forward MTV editing style. In one famous scene the effect of a bullet and sepsis are illustrated in a kinetic, internal way that was novel at the time, but that I today think of as the CSI-shot. But after Troy's torture and Archie's epiphany the film abandons its "hip" visuals for a more sombre, serious tone. The colours become slightly saturated and the camera movements less kinetic - and so adheres more to the tradition of serious documentaries, than the MTV template. It all ends with the remaining trio trading the gold to ensure safe passage to the refugees and the moral lesson is well earned.

So far, so traditional. But what keeps puzzling me about this film is the title. Where does the Three Kings come in? They start out as four, and while they are three at the end, there are no obvious references to them as kings. The only clear references in the whole film is Spike Jonze's character paraphrasing "We three Kings of the Orient are", with "We three kings be stealing gold..." Not much to go on. Though if I dare to venture into the land of over-interpretation there might be other references to the 'Three Kings' analogy.

For central to the classic Three Kings' tale - or Quest of the Magi as it is also known - it the quest motif, and that what they find at the end of the quest isn't exactly what they expected. In some sense the same is true for the main characters in the film. They follow the trail to the gold, but end up changed by what they find at the end of the trail - in fact so profoundly does this affect them that they change their plans, and bribe and lie to protect the refugees.

Behind Enemy Lines

There is something strange and a bit disturbing in watching Behind Enemy Lines, a film centred on an American pilot (Owen Wilson) shot down over Serbian (?) territory. The film deviates from the usual war film norm of strict realism, and instead heads into the territory of heavy symbolism and a form of finding-the-hero-within tale. Along the way it creates a narrative wherein the peace treaty between the Former Yugoslavian nations is presented as a hindrance to the rescue of Owen Wilson, and therefore something bad. The same with any European military operation, which according to the film doesn’t have the daring of the American forces. Add to this a sense that the only good "native" are the ones properly in love with American culture – shown by their love of Rap music, coca-cola and tv-references - and you’ve just started to touch upon a few of the reasons I found this film uncomfortable viewing.

I’m not going to bitch about the usual stereotypical characterisation anyone not Anglo-American is subjected to in average an American film. First of there are enough American films that don’t fall into that category, and secondly the stereotypes in Behind Enemy Lines are not the worst part of the film. The anvilicious symbolism is.

At sub-plot of the film has Owen Wilson being hunted by a sniper. As if he was no more than common prey, and not the shining beacon of soldierhood.

For at one point I started to suspect this film was all about angels and guardians, and then specifically angel symbols as could be tied to the American soldiers. Now heavy symbolism in war films is always a touchy subject, but when it is mixed, as it is here, with a narrative focus on instances of genocide during the Balkan war it becomes a bit strange. The angels are present in the call sign Archangel used by Owen Wilson, in the guardian angel like warning he gets from his dead buddy and the climax of the film which takes place at the foot of a giant angel statue. Combine this with the films plot that the Archangel is shot down for taking photos of an act of genocide, you could almost suspect the film of wanting to equate the Americans with angels watching and reporting the evil works of man to some higher authority. I say almost, because I don’t think the film is that clever – and I say almost because I hope film doesn’t think itself that clever. There are enough troubling aspects to this film already, and so there is no need to draw the divine into the equation.

Behind Enemy Lines' subtle symbolism assumes new proportions by the inclusion of a frickkin' huge angel statue

That said I will admit that I got fascinated by the cinematography. It is all very flashy, with a lot of editing that combines slow-mo with normal shots and several instances of what I think of as the CSI shot. When showing us how a machine works the camera seems to woosh into the machine and follow all the wires and gears click into place. This type of illustration of the inner workings of machinery is common in adventure films, but rather unusual in the war film genre. So compared with the stark realism of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Black Hawk Down (2001) the use of the almost C.S.I. like visuals create the feel of an adventure film with added angel symbolism. Now this would have been sort of okay, if it hadn’t been for the inclusion of the genocide plot thread. A plot thread that has no purpose on its own in the film, apart from functioning as a form of moral platform for the hero and as such a sort of bizarre windowdressing to the main plot. And that I find strange and a bit disturbing.

At one point in Jarhead the marines are walking through a landscape of burning oil wells, coloured and shot like an inferno. Over the sound of the fires comes the tell-tale "swoosh-swoosh" of a helicopter and suddenly The Doors and Break on Through to the Other Side starts playing. "Man!" one of the marines mutter. "That is Vietnam music. Don’t we even get our own music?"

In some ways this scene encapsulates the best and the worst part of the film. And in some sense it best illustrates the mantra of the film: "Every war is different, every war is the same". I'm not sure if that is true in real life, but it certainly feels true when it comes to film.

The Vietnam film references in Jarhead are frequent, and sometimes quite clever. They help create some stunning images, and the vast knowledge of the war film genre that is repeatedly woven into the narrative, makes this a very self-aware war film. I tend to like those.

Yet the film automatically contradicts the music reference by having the next scene set to music, and the same if true for the scene after that, and after that. Clearly they have their own music. Likewise the Vietnam references are so frequent that the hand is overplayed and becomes a bit ridiculous. Though nothing can diminish the glory that is a cinema filed with marines watching Colonel Kilgore’s helicopter assault in Apocalypse Now while singing merrily along.

There are times when the beauty of Jarhead's cinematography almost works against the film's message

The film focuses on a sniper called Swoof (Jake Gyllenhaal), and was released in 2005. The story is set during the first Gulf war, but unlike Three Kings and Behind Enemy Lines it is a war film made after the start of the second Gulf War/Iraqi War and this has clearly influenced the film. Unlike the previous two there is a serious side to Jarhead that is present from the beginning and that creates a lot of the tension on the film. It is particularly good in combining this seriousness with grim humour, creating some stunningly surreal and macabre scenes. The actors are also good throughout - with Jamie Foxx in particular (and between this, The Kingdom and Collateral I'm starting to like Mr. Foxx more and more. He continues to deliver solid performances that mesh with the film, despite sometimes being given shitty material to work with).

Sadly I never got over the feeling that Jarhead was a film comprised of good scenes more than a coherent good narrative.

Films watched in 2009.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 10th, 2009 07:14 am (UTC)
Yeah, I suspected the Magi reference as well, but it is just so bizarre because it implies a depth and significance I'm not sure the film has. Though it clearly wants to think it is that important.

Oh man, I'd forgotten all about "Jesus Walks" - but it of course plays at the end and adds another level of anachronism. Kanye West is clearly contemporary to the viewer rather than to the film's characters - and that messes with references and symbolism as well. Doesn't that song go "most of all we're at war with out self"? In the context of the film I'd take that as a critique of the current Iraq-war rather than the last.

It's odd, because parts of Jarhead are really good, yet there are other parts that annoyed the hell out of me. I think the latter are largely the "young-(white)man-goes-to-war-and-finds-his-idealism-falter" plotline that belongs to the main character. It is pretty much identical to the majority of plots in war films' lately, and it would be rather nice if they could come up with something else soon. (though if I compiled a nice list of all these films - from Platoon onwards - I could make a nice article. I'm just not sure I could handle all the introspection and emo. ;))

Edited at 2009-07-10 07:14 am (UTC)
Jul. 10th, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
I was actually a bit annoyed by the change in tone of Three Kings when I saw it at the theatre. I didn't know it back then and I prefer to know beforehand if I'm watching something fun or something serious (or a combination thereof).
I never thought much about the title. But I always thought it alludes to the three guys shown in your two pictures above that behave like kings in the Middle East. There's a commentary track on the DVD but I kind of doubt there wil be information about the title.

I don't think I made it through Behind Enemy Lines without a lot of fast-forwarding. Maybe I didn't even watch it 'til the end. Patriotism overload. :)

I originally had higher expectations for Jarhead. I didn't know what to make of it. You probably know it, so just to make sure, I think the "Jesus Walks" comment by "lage_nom_ai" refers to the excellent trailer they made for the movie that very prominentely featured the song. Looking back I'd say it's one of those instances where only watching the trailer a couple of times instead of the movie is the better option.
Jul. 13th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
b.)Why is it called Three Kings?

I agree with the trailer_spot – I thought it was a reference to the American army soldier attitudes. They are like the kings of the land. Plus there is may be a bit of a Biblical reference there. I really liked "Three Kings" at the beginning, but it was far too long.

"Behind Enemy Lines" – I found it to be quite a poor movie, a prime example of why I don't really like Hollywood war films – stereotypes, inaccuracies, etc. But mainly I don't like Hollywood war movies because everything in them is about American soldiers (usually as the great saviors of democracy) and American interests (as if they are the most important), not about the people who actually live in the places that are shown. Also usually all the credit for everything is given to USA.

I also noticed the odd American soldiers/angels reference which was very odd.
Aug. 26th, 2010 08:09 pm (UTC)
I know.
I know why every war is the same.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )