When David O. Russell's film "Three Kings" came out in 1999, Warner Bros. marketed it as a rock 'n' roll boys' action feature. But the tale, set in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is a commentary on what Russell terms a "morally complicated war and morally compromised war."
Today, against the backdrop of another complicated conflict in the region, Russell considers "Three Kings" a crash course in "Iraqi Insurrection 101." His film, he said, exposes a concept essential to analyzing subsequent events: "We saved a rich country that was not a democracy, and we did not help the country that was trying to have a democracy rise up."
As "Three Kings" opens, four bored American GIs -- "victors" though they never saw combat -- slip into Iraq after the war is over to steal back gold Iraqis have stolen from Kuwaitis. The renegade Americans -- played by George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze -- intend their illicit raid to be quick and simple. But the Shiite villagers -- in the midst of a failed insurrection -- regard them as saviors to protect them from Saddam's soldiers. And things get messy for the Americans.
The Americans burst into a bunker where they think the gold is sequestered, surprising Saddam's soldiers who are watching the Rodney King beating on CNN. The startled Iraqis try to mollify the Americans with some of their Kuwaiti loot: a Cuisinart, a mini-stereo. In the next room, an Iraqi rebel is being tortured.
This is the combination of chaotic action, emotional content, pathos and absurdity that drives Russell's film.
The concept for "Three Kings" came from novelist-screenwriter John Ridley, who wrote its original script and gets story credit. Reached by phone in Toronto, where he is now shooting a film, Ridley said his protagonist (eventually played by Clooney in the Russell script) was a black man. And the issues that interested him have a contemporary resonance.
"At the time of the Gulf War," he said, "many black soldiers joined because it was a way to subsidize college, education, learning. They never expected to find themselves overseas fighting a war against other people of color." Ridley's main character asked the questions, "Why am I here? Why am I serving?" But that focus changed, Ridley said, "when the character changed."
Russell, then fresh from the success of his "Flirting With Disaster" (1996), signed on to direct after seeing a description of Ridley's script, which had been languishing at Warner Bros. Seeing a story set in a war not yet depicted on film, Russell realized he could work with "the secret history -- the history that hadn't been officially played in the media." Russell took 18 months to write his own script.
Perceptions of the war were shaped by CNN, as well as some of the first color photographs of a war, and Russell drew on both as inspiration for the surreal look of his film -- saturated candy colors (Bart Simpson on the grille of a jeep; a bright pink toy football thrown up against a blue sky) that pop out against the deep, bleached expanse of desert. Another inspiration was photojournalist Gilles Peres' book "Telex Iran," filled with black-and-white photos of a flat, open, impoverished desert landscape. "This was the world and the energy that interested me," Russell said.
He and the film's production designer, Catherine Hardwicke, planned a research trip to Iraq in the summer of 1998. "But then terrorists blew up the embassies in Nairobi and Clinton started bombing Iraq, and it wasn't worth it anymore. Catherine did contact this guy who was walking around the world carrying an 8-foot-tall crucifix on his back in some kind of performance art for peace or something. He had been allowed to walk into Iraq carrying his cross. He took all kinds of photographs inside Iraq that we got hold of, which gave us lots of ideas for costumes and architecture and vehicles."
Some critics praised the film's political core, but many found its experimental camera work distracting. "It was by no means a standard film," said Russell, who said he wanted to shatter the action genre. "It was too harsh, too challenging to the widest possible audience. Given that, it did surprising well." Made for $50 million, it took in $60 million at the box office.
Art met reality in 2000, when Russell traveled to the White House to screen "Three Kings" for then-President Bill Clinton. "Clinton said he thought that in addition to being 'good entertainment,' the film could be extremely useful in showing Americans how the war really ended and letting them know what's really entailed in these interventions, so that in the future -- if it ever has to happen again -- people realize what is required to conclude a certain humanitarian intervention in a complete way -- without leaving a mess behind."