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.
soldiers brutally beat children. Civilians are often depicted as dominated
and incapable of acting on their own without U.S. help.
cinematography relies on a stylized “realism” to show images
of death and war.
traditional cinematic themes
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
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.)
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.”
progression in the
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.
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”
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
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.
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,
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.
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.