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Three Kings (1999) Dir. by D.O. Russell Essay

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“Three Kings” is based on the events of the Gulf war and portrays Iraqi rebellions against Saddam Hussein. The movie describes adventures of fours soldiers who steal a gold bullion. This work belongs to war adventure movies and anti-war films. Disillusioned by war casualties and cruelty they saw during Desert Storm Operation, the soldiers kill one of Iraqis and find a document (a map). Cruz, a young journalist, tells her lover gates about recent rumors, and Gates convinces the men that this map will help them to find 23 million (a gold bullion) in Saddam’s bunkers.

The journey begins.

The main part of the movie vividly portrays hardship and grievances faced by native Iraqi population. The main characters rescue Iraqi prisoners, their leader and several Americas. Barlow is caught by Iraqi soldiers and taken to a bunker. Barlow calls him wife but one of the soldiers interrupts him and subjects to tortures. Together with deserters, the commands free Barlow.

They find gold. In order to save their lives and reach Iranian border, Gates pays huge sums of money to drivers. When they reach the border, they are caught by American solder. In order to free the Shiites refugees, they give the rest of the gold to this American soldier. In several years, Barlow becomes a prosperous businessman and his friend Elgin an advisor to movies. The stolen gold was returned to Kuwait.

This movie portrays great sufferings and pain faced by American soldiers during the Gulf War. The idea that all the suffering were for nothing was simply unbearable (Vernon 2001). The horrible reality of the war is therefore transformed into what one might call the Myth. The key members of this battlefield brotherhood are Elgin and Barlow, the contemporary warriors who because of their skills and indifference to their own survival perfectly fit definition of the ideal combat soldier. Their foil is Iraqi military, who with their background, conscience, and critical attitude toward peace and fellow-soldiers are outsiders from the circle.

The choices of the characters are influenced by toughness and heroic actions of other soldiers and brutality of war. In this new environment, all men are natural leaders. These grunts also understand what is needed to survive in combat operations. Because of their poverty and lack of money, they are not part of the mainstream back in the World. But once reaching Iraq, they assume new identities, as signified by their nicknames, feel pride in their combat skills, and acquire a sense of belonging and meaning in their lives-even if that meaning is only helping themselves and their friends stay alive.

What bonds them is their ultimate trust in each other, their combat skills, their love-hate relationship with the war’s violence and absurdity, and their strong sense of being abandoned by the people at home. Overall, this movie praises the fighting spirit and self-sacrifice of this small unit of soldiers. Critics Berardinelli (1999) admit that “the action sequences are expertly directed, and Russell develops tension because we’re never sure who’s going to survive or what’s going to happen next”. The desire to save their friend Barlow vividly portrays that friendship and comradeship, honor, courage, pride, and loyalty are the main qualities which help soldiers to survive during the Gulf War (Arnold 1999).

The strength of Three Kings lies in the descriptions of combat-language, events, emotions, conflicts, and tragedies inherent in the physical and psychological realities of war. D.O. Russell has a remarkable understanding of the combat soldiers’ psychological relationships to Iraq. He also has an ear for the grunts’ language and an eye for the precise details conveying the horrors and miseries of war. Taking into account historical context of the movie, “the four men are reluctantly pulled into a civil war between the Iraqi villagers and members of Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Republican Guard, which is torturing and killing anyone without a uniform” (Vice 1999).

Most impressive is the authentic grunt dialogue pervading the speech patterns, vulgarities, jargon, fear, threats, hate, and black humor. We can guess the exact meaning and significance of actions taking into account real historical events and choices of the characters. In contrast to many other war movies, the aim of this work is to ‘force’ viewers to rethink meaning and significance of human relations during war and value the role and importance of friendship in human relations. The benefit of this movie is the brutal realism and exhaustive detail of the day-to-day life of a combat soldier.

This movie portrays the evolution of a soldier and gives viewers a feel for war. Critics (Arnold 2000) admit that the irony of the movie is reasoned battlefield strategies which do not defeat enemies, but the blunderings of an incompetent major lead to victory. As a war movie, D.O. Russell unveils the horrors of the Gulf War and its political context. Thus, the graphic scenes are, at times, almost poetic in their litany of death, gruesome details, and horrific human destruction (Berardinelli 1999).

In this movie, soldiers’ glorious moments on the battlefield are absent; the resulting oppressive spiritual darkness pervading the narrative is not so much a consequence of individuals’ actions but a product of the political, social, and military systems in which the soldiers have existed. Unlike many war stories, D.O. Russell introduces a strong political undertone and often, unsuccessfully, attempts to move away from the fictional memoir to a more developed dramatic plot.

From this assignment I leant that actions and personal qualities of the characters provide reasons to believe that glorious moments of heroism, honor, and self-sacrifice regularly occur on the battlefield, and that a brotherhood of strong bonds of attachment and mutual concern, is widespread among combat soldiers. The knowledge of history and political situation can help viewers to understand war movies and their meaning.


  1. Arnold, G. (1999, October 1) `Three Kings’ No Crowning Achievement. The Washington Times, p. 5
  2. Berardinelli, J. Three Kings. Retrieved 24 April 2007, form http://www.reelviews.net/movies/t/3kings.html
  3. Three Kings. Dir. by D.O. Russell (2000) Warner Home Video.
  4. Vice, J. (1999). Desert News. Retrieved 24 April 2007, form http://deseretnews.com/movies/view/1,1257,70000069,00.html
  5. Vernon, A. (2001 Winter) The Gulf War and Postmodern Memory. The Wilson Quarterly, 25, p. 37.

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