With the advent of glasnost and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, films with Cold War themes seem a bit out of style. It is simply a case of bad timing for filmmakers, a notable case being John McTiernan, whose ridiculously paranoid THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER feels like a relic of the 50s.
Its politics are dated, but more importantly, its thrills are few. Just as dated, but much more thrilling, is John Frankenheimer's Cold War drama THE FOURTH WAR, an effective, tightly constructed thriller that packs an emotional punch in the end, when even its politics are compelling.
Roy Scheider plays Col. Jack Knowles, a born soldier and embittered Vietnam veteran who fights wars even during peacetime. He is the Army's loose cannon, a troublemaker who, after a string of unsuccessful commands, has been stationed at an unimportant and generally quiet post where it is hoped he
will stay out of trouble. Knowles has gotten the job thanks to his friend and commanding officer, General Hackworth (Harry Dean Stanton), who has fought beside Knowles in many a battle. The post is located at the West German-Czechoslovakian border (marked with red posts on the Soviet troops' side,
blue on the Americans'). Positioned across the way is Colonel Valachev (Jurgen Prochnow), Knowles' Soviet opposite number. Like Knowles, Valachev is an embittered fighting machine, and it's not too long before these two have a confrontation. While patrolling with his men, Knowles witnesses the
shooting of a defector who was trying to cross the border. Infuriated, Knowles (who is forbidden to use real ammunition) hurls a snowball at Valachev, who promptly returns the favor. This seemingly innocuous exchange soon escalates into a obsessive and quite treacherous battle, in which the
weapons become much more dangerous than snowballs. Knowles sneaks over the border one night and forces, at gunpoint, a group of Czech soldiers to sing "Happy Birthday" to him; Valachev responds by blowing up Knowles' jeep as the latter surveys the border the next day. This weird, private battle
attracts the attention of Knowles' second-in-command, Lt. Col. Timothy Clark (Tim Reid), who files a report with Hackworth. Hackworth, after a few more exchanges between the opposing loose cannons, is forced to travel to the post and warn Knowles to stop before he gets court-martialed. But Knowles
(who has by now agreed to help a young woman [Lara Harris] get across the border) won't stop, and the game soon becomes an all-out war, with the climax taking place between the borders as Valachev and Knowles (who have exhausted all of their weapons) fight and claw at each other on a frozen lake.
Surrounded by soldiers on either side, the two heroes stop fighting and look around to survey the situation. With guns aimed directly at them and tension filling the air, the men realize how frightening and ridiculous the situation has become and silently call a truce. Distressed, and yet somehow
enlightened, Knowles makes a snowball and meekly tosses it over his shoulder, and both men sit quietly contemplating the future. The film ends with a voice-over of Hackworth, quoting Einstein, who, when asked what weapons would be used in World War III, replied that he didn't know, but prophesied,
"The fourth war will be fought with stones."
Although it has its share of problems--outdated politics, an unnecessary subplot, failure to develop one major character--THE FOURTH WAR is still a successful thriller, providing plenty of excitement and, by the end, a strong message. Frankenheimer (whose work has ranged from the exceptional [THE
MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE] to the ridiculous [PROPHECY]), here seems to hark back to his days of directing 50s television. THE FOURTH WAR is done in a surprisingly straightforward, non-flashy style, with the exposition introduced nicely and the action building strongly. This is a very professional
piece of work from Frankenheimer, who has lately become a king of low-budget thrillers, creating some very sharp films on a shoestring (including 52 PICK-UP, which also starred Scheider). THE FOURTH WAR is no exception to this trend. Frankenheimer always seems to be able to get strong performances
out of weak players (such as Don Johnson, in 1989's DEAD BANG), and does so again here. Reid is very effective, and even Harris (who was terrible in 1987's NO MAN'S LAND) does well. The two central performances are terrific. Scheider, who has done some of his best work of late with Frankenheimer,
is fiery and powerful as Knowles, creating a character full of quirks and almost-unlikable attributes. This is a man who knows nothing but war and soldiering, who will never fit in as a civilian (this is wonderfully conveyed in an early scene in which Knowles speaks to his son over the phone).
Prochnow is also fine, though he falls victim to a vastly underdeveloped role. While it is clear that his character parallels Scheider's in circumstance and spirit, one wishes Frankenheimer had dedicated more screen time to Prochnow's Valachev, so that we could understand his motivations as well
as we do Knowles'. Unfortunately, the film's failure to concentrate more on the Soviet sometimes turns his character into a standard evil Russkie.
Stanton's General Hackworth, on the other hand, is both perfectly realized and wonderfully performed. In what is easily his best performance since REPO MAN, Stanton steals every sequence he is in, and Hackworth's reprimanding of Knowles is the film's best scene. Becoming an intergral part of the
film (indeed, the entire movie is told from his point of view, in a voice-over flashback), he is an absolute joy to watch. THE FOURTH WAR's strongest element, however, is its potent ending, which is startlingly effective in its simplicity, conveying a feeling both of overwhelming sadness and of
peace. It's an exceptional accomplishment for a little thriller, and quite a step for Frankenheimer. THE FOURTH WAR is a nice example of low-budget American filmmaking and a strong, exciting story to boot. (Violence, profanity.)
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