Three Kings and the neocolonial imagination in film. Here, the common framing of heroic U.S. combat with a flag in the image establishes an “American” point of view.

Three Kings’ U.S. soldier heroes provide numerous points of identification for viewers. Low angle shot here emphasizes male muscular strength and purpose. These protagonists early on refuse to follow the orders of their superior officers. Their characterization thus exemplifies the theme of the outlaw hero.

The U.S. soldiers grow morally through a change of heart. Instead of stealing gold, their original goal, they save Iraqi civilians. This plot twist builds into the script a humanist, non-oppositional critique of the Gulf War.

The film provides a happy ending for several dozen Iraqis, who escape thanks to the film’s U.S. soldier- heroes. In symbolic terms, the ending, here “native” jubilation upon rescue, parallels the United States’ “neo-colonial mission.” That is, the film personalizes an intervention in the affairs of a colonized nation by using the logic of the colonizer to attempt to solve the problems of the colonized.

The U.S. army tries to prevent George Clooney (lower right) and the other protagonists from rescuing the Iraqi civilians. The soldier-heroes see the flaws in their officers and in the U.S. mission insofar as it failed to save Iraq by destroying the “bad” Arabs, that is, Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Three Kings: neocolonial Arab representation

by Lila Kitaeff

Colonialism may be officially over, but its ghost lives on in U.S. political actions and cultural productions. This country’s administration has taken on as its “righteous duty” to intervene in other countries’ governments and policies. Such international intervention is, in fact, a less conscious governmental proclamation of an older colonial ideology, “the white man’s burden.” This ever present colonial ideal is not only a national governmental stance but is echoed in and validated by popular media.

One of the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented peoples in the eyes of many Americans are members of the Arabic nations, a fact made painfully clear since September 2001. Popular media representations of Arabs have long been limited to simplistic narratives about good and evil characters, both desperately in need of U.S. intervention either in the form of aid or destruction. As Edward Saïd, a leading Palestinian-Western scholar puts it:

The last permissible racism here [in the United States]—and by permissible, I mean it’s okay publicly in the media and elsewhere—is to be racist against Arabs. You can say the most outrageous things in the most respectable magazines and newspapers and even on the air about Arabs, things you would never dare to say about any other ethnic or racial group. (Viswanathan 320)

My use of the term “Arab” in this paper should be understood to refer to Arabic-speaking people and/or people tracing their heritage to an Arabic nation in the Middle East or North Africa. The League of Arab States currently includes Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Palestinian Territories, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Arabs are not a race, and they do not all share the same religion or political beliefs. However, it should be noted that people from other parts of the Middle East and/or those of the Muslim faith are often falsely identified as Arabs within the United States.

The Arab American Institute notes,

In both popular culture and government policy, anti-Arab stereotypes since the 1970’s have affixed a stigma on Arab ethnicity in America… The Arab as villain has been a favorite scape-goat of American culture (par. 11).

In the 1980s and 90s the stereotype of Arab terrorists as generic “bad guys” rose to prominence in films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, such as Commando and True Lies. Many people in the United States have had only this kind of Arabic image readily at hand. The cultural association is so strong that the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 was immediately blamed on Arabic groups based on no other evidence than the stereotype of Arab as terrorist. Even reputable newspapers and magazines have done little to improve the image of Arabs since the press often focuses on the mysterious nature of Arab peoples and the chaos and evil of Arab governments (Saïd in Viswanathan 295-296).

In the past, this view of the Arabic world as a dark and mysterious place has supported U.S. political and military intervention in the Mideast and Africa, either through direct U.S. military campaigns or its political and economic support of such campaigns; we have seen military action that the U.S. supported in recent times in Iraq, Somalia, and the Palestinian territories. Today we see the continuation of these governmental efforts in many of its actions and, ideologically, in the way it represents “the war on terrorism.” Now, with striking contemporary resonances, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 stands as a defining moment when both the U.S. government and many political commentators relied on Arab stereotypes to justify an unjustifiable war to the nation.

Today, since under the leadership of another President Bush, we have again attacked Iraq, this situation should prompt us to take another look at the first Gulf war, from which our current attack descends. At the time of this writing, late March 2003, the United States has been at war with Iraq for one week, after having threatened attack for several months. Unsupported by the majority of the world’s nations, including many citizens of the United States who have taken to the streets in massive protests, President Bush used war powers granted to him by the United States Congress. Bombing and ground fighting have taken place throughout the country of Iraq, the oilfields in the South have been “secured,” and U.S. and British troops are on their way to begin fighting in Baghdad. So far, the expected uprising against Saddam Hussein in Southern Iraq has not taken place and Iraqi resistance has been greater than the U.S. had claimed it would be, leaving no doubt that the war will be longer and bloodier than previously imagined. However, Bush insists that the United States will “fight for as long as it takes” to remove Hussein from power and liberate the Iraqi people.

The Gulf War on film

Three Kings (Dir. David O. Russell, 1999) is a complex film exploring the ramifications of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It is a cultural production that self-consciously attempts to move away from these mainstream views of Arabs I discuss above. However, it still remains marked by colonial ideology. In my analysis, I will locate the film in a tradition of neocolonialism, one that separates the colonizer and the colonized into categories of identification centered around “self” and “other.” In film, these categories are created specifically through the cinematic apparatus. That is, Hollywood film “interpellates” its viewers, or encourages their identification with characters, by creating various “spectator positions.” These spectator positions are established not only by the storyline and the action, but also by the visual trajectory of the film, which proceeds in time through the main characters’ points of view and the narrative goal that the script sets up for the protagonists to reach. In this case, the narrative goal is what Ella Shohat and Robert Stam would call their “neocolonial mission.” The “neocolonial mission,” as I will explore further below, is to intervene in the affairs of colonized nations, to use the logic of the colonizer to attempt to solve the problems of the colonized.

In Three Kings, viewer positions are set up to create a sense of identification (the viewer’s feeling a sense of “self”— I’m briefly in that person’s shoes) or to see characters or situations as safely “other.” Interestingly, such identification processes set up by the film are complicated by the tenuous scripting of a major black American character, who partially elicits spectatorial identification but in the narrative is simultaneously relegated to the category of other. Most important, the film’s very critique of U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf War ultimately remains limited to expression in neocolonial terms, and any critique is further undermined by the film’s use of mainstream U.S. cultural and cinematic themes.

Neocolonialism persists as an ideology and an economic practice that continues to enact and reinforce many of the tenets of colonialism. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam define neocolonialism as follows:

Although direct colonial rule has largely come to an end, much of the world remains entangled in neocolonialism … a conjuncture in which direct political and military control has given way to abstract, semi-indirect, largely economic [and cultural] forms of control. (17)

Shohat and Stam argue that as projects, cinema and imperialism have always been tied together since cinema’s origins. They further demonstrate how a submerged colonial presence exists in many contemporary films (100-131). In particular, like Three Kings, many films set in the Mideast, Africa, and Asia, often continue the colonial project into our neocolonial era.

Three Kings takes place just as the Gulf War has ended. The film centers around four U.S. soldiers—played by Spike Jonze, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and George Clooney—who find a map leading to Saddam Hussein’s hidden gold. During their search for the gold, the U.S. soldiers stumble upon a bunker holding Iraqi civilian prisoners. The four soldiers then shift the focus of their mission to rescue the prisoners, making their way to the Iranian border with Iraqi soldiers in pursuit. The U.S. army attempts to stop them, allowing the civilians to escape across the border only after Clooney’s character gives up the gold to his superiors.

Three Kings is a remake of a WWII film, Kelly’s Heroes (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1970). The original film starred Clint Eastwood as the leader of a group of U.S. soldiers in France who defied their superiors’ orders in order to steal a stash of Nazi gold hidden behind enemy lines. While hailed as a successful comic antiwar film, Kelly’s Heroes lacked the moral twist of Russell’s film. Interestingly, even though remakes are currently big business in Hollywood, Three Kings’ connection to its predecessor was barely mentioned in current marketing or critical reviews.

Non-oppositional critique
of the Gulf War

In general, Three Kings’ marketing and reception dwelt on its supposedly unconventional nature. By unconventional, I mean “oppositional” discourse and imagery in the sense of contrasting to those found in dominant cultural productions. Although I will argue that the film does not, in fact, deviate from a typical Hollywood film in its basic message and structure, Three Kings does occupy a somewhat tenuous position in terms of Hollywood-type unconventionality. At first glance, viewers might expect the film to be an action-packed adventure and war movie. The main actors are blockbuster action stars (with the exception of Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich and several “Beastie Boys” videos). And director Russell’s previous films, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, were offbeat in their brand of dark comedy, if not particularly unconventional in form or plot.

Initially film reviewers considered the story original. They said this film had more to it than met the eye, that its message and structure differed from most Hollywood films. A typical review praised Three Kings for its “genre subversion, anarchic attitude and barbed political commentary… making cogent points about… America’s role as the world’s policeman.” This same reviewer even suggested that the film addressed “the amorality and lack of consistent principles in American foreign policy. No Hollywood film in memory has addressed such an issue” (McCarthy par. 4 and 18).

However, although Russell does make a certain social critique of the Gulf War, as I will explore below, it is based in mainstream rather than oppositional discourses. For example, he explained this as his goal:

Taking people’s perceptions of this war, and turning them on their head… all the assumptions that you had about this war need to be looked at and turned over, including the sense of satisfaction you had as a moral victor, as an American.

However, if one were to make an explanatory critique subverting mainstream perceptions of the Gulf War, one would have to take into account the struggle’s historical context and the economic and ideological interests behind U.S. intervention. Such an argument was made by Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, for example, when they asserted that “the real reason for U.S. opposition to Iraqi occupation of Kuwait is… to keep Washington, Wall Street, and their allies in charge of setting oil prices” (par. 5). And as Chomsky and Albert further pointed out, the U.S. government also has an ideological interest in perpetuating militarism in order to maintain the status quo of military spending and interventionist foreign policy.

Three Kings does not offer this sort of explanatory critique. Instead, the film presents the protagonists as coming to a realization that the United States has failed to save Iraq and destroy Hussein’s regime. According to the film, the United States is mistaken not because it intervened in the Middle East but rather because it did not follow through in its mission to save the good Arabs and crush the bad Arabs, a mission perpetuating neocolonial ideals. The heroes of Three Kings, in terms of the film’s logic, right the wrongs of the United States by saving a small group of Iraqi civilians, thus reproducing “the [neo]colonialist structure of the heroes’ relation to the native… [to] sort out the problems of people who cannot sort things out for themselves” (Dyer 156).

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