Images showing grieving women and relying on pathos are common ways of creating “others.” Here, a point of view shot from the U.S. soldier-heroes’ perspective as they enter the Iraqi village.

Iraqi soldiers brutally beat children. Civilians are often depicted as dominated and incapable of acting on their own without U.S. help.

The cinematography relies on a stylized “realism” to show images of death and war.




Neocolonial themes and
traditional cinematic themes

Neocolonial cinema encourages the spectator to identify with representations of the colonizing subject and, by partaking of the trajectory set up by the storyline, to posit the colonial project itself as desirable. For example, in the scene in which the U.S. soldier protagonists are shown first entering the village, the images largely present their point of view, inviting identification by literally allowing the spectator to see through their eyes. In this scene the Iraqi civilians are portrayed as dominated and submissive as they beg the Americans to stay and help them. Other Iraqis who want to fight seem incapable of acting on their own as they cry out, “The Americans are here. It’s okay to come out. We can fight Saddam!” Thus, all Iraqi civilians—those beaten down and those who are still resistant—are presented as entirely dependent on U.S. help.

As Shohat and Stam put it, such a scene functions to “mobilize” spectatorial desire to participate in the narrative line about the protagonists’successful “neo-colonial mission.” The mobilization of desire works in tandem with spectator positions. Just as the cinematic apparatus interpellates the viewer to identify with the characters and narrative, the desire for which the protagonists strive also becomes the viewer’s desire .

In its ties with other fictions, including novels, drama, and song lyrics, Three Kings integrates traditional U.S. cultural and cinematic themes, especially about the outlaw hero. The film also uses a common Hollywood script format for dealing with cultural crises, that of the “problem picture.” These script strategies further weaken the film’s critique of United States ideals. In terms of screenwriting, Robert Ray discusses narrative strategies common in Hollywood in which morally centered characters enact a drama against a background of contemporary social issues. This kind of script development is common in what Ray terms “problem pictures,” films that critique large social issues but ultimately have happy endings that belie those problems (147).

In films like these, the outlaw hero is a common character. Such a figure possesses his own moral code and works to “correct” socially unjust laws and authority figures (Ray 15). For example, as Richard Dyer describes the genre, in the Rambo movies that attempt to critique the Vietnam War, the protagonist Rambo is

doing the job… that the United States government should be doing. Thus he repeatedly upholds basic American values against the actuality of America” (Dyer 159-160).

In this way, Hollywood’s use of the outlaw hero as a solution to historical events distorts perceptions of those events as part of social history, that is, outside of their filmic portrayals (Ray 59-62).

At the beginning of Three Kings, the rebellious, disaffected protagonists have a mission, to find the gold, with a motive only of personal entrepreneurship. The script’s trajectory is to have them undergo a shift in moral sensibility. In the end, they abandon their racism against the Arabs as they gain new ethics, which now motivate them to save Iraqis whom they believe desperately need their aid. That the protagonists early on refuse to follow the orders of their superior officers exemplifies this theme of the outlaw hero.

Even as they refuse military participation in order to quest for gold, in their rebellion the protagonists function as the script’s moral center, emphasizing a popular discourse of individual morality over societal wrongs. In Clooney’s first scene, for example, he argues with the commanding officer, claiming, “I don’t even know what we did in this war!” (Note to the reader: in this essay I refer to protagonists by actor’s rather than character’s name since actors’ race and nation form an important part of my argument.)

Three Kings was largely marketed with Clooney’s name as the principal star, and his character is particularly emblematic of the outlaw hero. He is a member of the special forces, lending him a certain “cool” mystique among the younger U.S. protagonists, and is the one in charge of their mission. He is the main outlaw, and perhaps the one whom the audience is most inclined to follow. Therefore his “reform,” for he is the one who ultimately makes the decision to rescue the civilians, is in some ways the most important to spectator identification.

By having the protagonists not identify with their superior officers, the script sets up a narrative line immediately gratifying to viewers. Also, in social terms the film implies that U.S. moral injustices are faceless and institutional, caused by politicians and the military system. Injustice does not result from the actions of U.S. rebels and individualists such as these soldiers nor, by implication, from film spectators who identify with the film’s outlaws. In fact, in righting the wrongs of the United States, the protagonists as outlaw heroes provide the viewers with morally superior figures with whom to identify. Ideologically, the narrative trajectory of the outlaw heroes in this problem film, as described by Ray, facilely eclipses director Russell’s stated goal—to subvert “the sense of satisfaction you [the viewer] had as a moral victor, as an American.”

Moral progression in the
character development

Three Kings has the protagonists grow ethically until they are the film’s moral center. In this way, the plot fits well into traditional liberal discourse, where moral growth is read as “victory.” Such a “moral twist” in Three Kings made reviewers laud the film as progressive. Yet this kind of narrative twist is hardly original. It is part of a narrative mechanism of irony well known to spectators and fitting within discourses of otherness; similar progressions within the protagonist’s conscience take place, for example, in such widely varying films as Dances with Wolves and Spies Like Us. The ironic mechanism functions in Three Kings’ script to demonstrate how the protagonists’ moral shift is a victory, yet by the script focusing on that victory, it somehow compensates for the failures of the war itself. In this way, the narrative trajectory allows viewers to accept that larger social immorality will remain unchanged.

In addition, as Sharon Willis argues, this use of irony relies on creating a sense of distance between spectator and film narrative that ultimately lessens any sense that the storyline is connected to social reality. Audience investment in films that employ ironic distance, Willis notes, involves a certain trust in the “ironic cool” of the film “to manage our reaction, to catch us up and bring us back laughing” (152).

At several points, the film seems to be engaged in social critique, but it is only drawing our attention to the war’s minor contradictions without confronting major issues. For example, when the protagonists break into an Iraqi bunker, they find Iraqi soldiers with stockpiles of top brand stereos and U.S. exercise machines in rooms just down the hall from imprisoned civilians. In this way, the film shows equal greed on both sides.

But its critique of the larger political and institutional aspects of the war is shallow. For example, in the film’s opening scene, as Wahlberg shoots an Iraqi soldier seemingly out of mere confusion, the camera focuses on Wahlberg’s look of horror as he watches the Iraqi die. The message here is that “war is wrong” without the film’s going into the specifics of the institutional and historical framework of U.S. military engagement in Iraq.

Binary representations of the other

In the way that they move from thievery to self-sacrifice, the protagonists experience a moral shift that sets up the completion of their neocolonial mission; they need to learn not to see the Arabs as other. Yet even in its attempt to portray understanding of the other, the film does not escape the trap of the neocolonial self/other mechanism. The script still collapses the other into the logic of the self. Throughout most of Three Kings, the Arabs are portrayed in binary representations as oversimplified good and bad characters. The Iraqi soldiers in the film are brutal, cowardly, immoral, and childishly dependent on Saddam Hussein, who is characterized as embodying pure evil. The Iraqi civilians are sharply delineated from the Iraqi soldiers and are depicted as innocent, non-military women, children, and prisoners.

A good example of these oversimplified binary characterizations occurs in the climactic scene in which the protagonists make their seemingly difficult decision to complicate their own mission of collecting the gold in order to save a group of Iraqi civilians. On the insistence of the U.S. protagonists, the Iraqi soldiers bring several civilian prisoners out of the bunker while the U.S. soldiers retrieve the gold. Then the Iraqi soldiers, attempting to restore order among the remaining civilians, are shown beating a small child with her arm in a cast. When the prisoners are brought out, as a woman breaks away from the soldiers and runs to greet her bound and gagged husband, an Iraqi soldier wearing dark sunglasses pulls the woman away and coldly and quickly shoots her in the head. The young child runs and weeps over her mother’s dead body.

In this scene, the Iraqi soldiers are marked as so bad and the civilians as so good, they form an obvious caricature. Shooting an innocent woman attempting to greet her imprisoned husband in front of their injured child results in an over-the-top cliché of good vs. evil. Discussing U.S. colonial cinematic representations, Shohat and Stam have found similar binary representations of the other in the Western, where different tribes of Indians become classified as good or bad Indians. Shohat and Stam further argue that such a binarism “persists… even in revisionist, ‘pro-Indian’ [or ‘pro-Arab’] films” (67). Thus in the same way that a film like Dances With Wolves, which attempts to show a sympathetic and realistic view of Indians, still sets up the binarism of good/bad Indian, so does Three Kings fail to escape the “colonial splitting of good/bad natives” still present in neocolonial films (67).

This type of representation shows how neocolonial ideology rarely imagines the other apart from the dichotomy of good, noble, and idealized, or bad, savage, and villainized. In the way such ideological tropes work themselves out in Three Kings, the Iraqi civilians play a part assigned to them that limits them to being victims. Their identities are defined in opposition to Iraqi villainy and in a relation of (inferior) helplessness to the U.S. soldiers. Iraqis are not depicted in terms of their own subjectivity.

Even when the Iraqi characters gain some power so as to escape a victimized position, their empowerment comes about only on the colonizer’s terms. They can only demand that the U.S. soldiers help them escape, referencing the same colonial discourse of the natives’ “inbred dependency on the leadership of White Europeans [or Americans]” (Shohat and Stam 140). Thus although the film depicts Iraqi soldiers as “bad guys” and Iraqi civilians as “good guys,” the narrative reduces both to “other.” The script’s attempt to “humanize” Iraqi civilians does not grant them a chance to present a local perspective on the war or to lay claim, in the trajectory of narrative identificatory positions, to the category of self.

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