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Three Kings in the Iraqi Desert - Movie Review and Film Essay

Updated on April 28, 2013


In several advanced college history courses I have the students watch a contemporary film, usually one dealing with a war or revolution or political conflict. The students will be presented with the basic historical and geographical facts pertinent to the region in lecture form. On the day of the film they receive a Study Guide to help them navigate the film and then guide their efforts as they write analytical essays. Below is the Study Guide provided to the students prior to watching Three Kings.

Plot Summary

Just after the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991, a small group of American soldiers discover a secret Iraqi map, which indicates the location of a bunker that contains Iraqi stolen gold and other treasures, taken from Kuwait. The soldiers hope to “liberate” the gold for themselves before their return to the United States.

They soon realize that the defeated Iraqi army is more focused on persecuting Iraqi civilians than in protecting Saddam’s gold from the Americans. The civilians had been encouraged by U.S. forces, essentially the U.S. government, to oppose Sadaam Hussein and his forces. With the war over and Sadaam’s forces still in place, many of them are facing imprisonment and execution because the U.S. military has orders not to defend or assist them.

Suddenly the Americans with the single mercenary goal of obtaining the gold have to confront a moral choice….do they enrich themselves and abandon the Iraqis to their certain doom? Or do they decide that saving innocent lives, even non-American lives, is paramount and takes precedence over all other goals and intentions. The film examines what people will choose to do when driven by greed, driven by a need for security, or driven by a need to ameliorate and correct injustice.

Themes Within the Film

The film addresses a number of different issues. The notion of conducting a propaganda war through the use of media; the real reason the U.S. interfered when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait; one of the the reasons Iraq was able to invade Kuwait in the first place (American arms and training received from a previous administration); the tendency of governments to serve their own interests as part of the politics of war; the tendency of governments to do almost anything to cement their power base.

Director’s Vision

David O. Russell is the director and his films frequently carry hidden "messages" under the cover of surreal detail and in references to other art works. He is impatient with and intolerant of a traditional “romantic” story-line.

What is discernible in almost all of Russell’s films is his conviction that modern America is frequently an inequitable and unjust place. Along those lines he makes references to other films, for example, Apocalypse Now, and the “colonial” buddy film, The Man Who Would Be King with Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Christopher Plummer.

Visual Dimensions

Visually, the film is frenetic and striking. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel used a special bleaching process to wash much of the color out of his frames. The main characters, Archie, Troy, Vig, and Chief race their mis-appropriated Humvee through a starkly white desert that frequently erupts in gunfire and mine explosions.

Making fun of and taking cheap shots at other films, and filled with shattering gore–filled scenes, as well as, surprisingly tender and moving scenes, the film clearly communicates Russell's view of American history and political intentions.

All this is offered of course within the confines of an action-packed, fast paced war film, with abrupt interludes of sharp humor. It is both a strong critique of the American government's use of its power and influence and a tongue-in-cheek love letter to the individualistic American soul and character.

Major Characters

George Clooney - Major Archie Gates

Mark Wahlberg - SFC Troy Barlow

Ice Cube - Staff Sgt Chief Elgin

Spike Jonze - PFC Conrad Vig

Nora Dunn - Journalist, Adrianna Cruz

Instructions for Film Essay

Do you think the film is effective? How is it effective?

Aside from being an entertaining adventure film, what is the director saying?

What concepts, concerns, (diplomatic, political, social, cultural, religious, economic) is the film attempting to draw attention to?

Note: Start with my questions as a jumping off place and then devise specific questions of your own. Please turn in your specific questions when you turn in your 5-6 page essay.


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