Three Kings is a 1999 satirical war drama film written and directed by David O. Russell from a story by John Ridley about a gold heist in the style of Kelly's Heroes. It takes place during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein following the end of the first Persian Gulf War.

The film stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze. Film critic Roger Ebert described it as a "weird masterpiece, a screw-loose war picture that sends action and humor crashing head-on into each other and spinning off into political anger."[1] The film gets its name from the character Conrad's (Jonze) outburst: "We three kings be stealin' the gold...", a parody of the Christmas carol We Three Kings of Orient Are.

Plot[edit | edit source]

Outline[edit | edit source]

Three Kings revolves around four U.S. soldiers attempting to steal seized Kuwaiti gold bullion from the Iraqi bunkers. During their journey they become involved with a badly outgunned and desperate group of Iraqi Shia rebels who have risen against Saddam's regime but were abandoned by the Coalition. The film deals with the aftermath of George H. W. Bush's appeal to Iraqis to rise up against the tyranny, and the ensuing massacre as Saddam's loyalists put down the popular rebellion, killing many thousands of civilians.

Synopsis[edit | edit source]

The film opens with Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (Wahlberg) shooting a surrendering Iraqi Regular Army soldier due to confusion over the rules of engagement following the end of the Gulf War. Although Private First Class Conrad Vig (Jonze) compliments him on the kill, Troy takes no pleasure in it. The two begin to disarm and search the surrendering Iraqi soldiers, and while forcibly subduing a resistant Iraqi officer they find a document hidden between his buttocks. The document appears to be a map, and Troy decides not to notify his commanding officer, instead taking the "Iraqi ass map" to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Cube), a friend of his. While the three of them discuss the implications of their discovery they leave Specialist Walter Wogeman (Jamie Kennedy) to stand guard outside their tent.

Meanwhile, Major Archie Gates (Clooney), a Special Forces soldier in the same camp, is trading sex for stories with a journalist, Cathy Daitch (Greer), when he is interrupted by Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), the television reporter who has been assigned to Archie. Adriana tells Archie of the rumors of a secret map being discovered. Archie ditches Adriana and enters the tent of Troy, Conrad and Chief, against the protestations of Walter. Archie convinces the three soldiers that the document is a map of Saddam's bunkers, containing gold bullion stolen from Kuwait. They decide to steal the gold themselves and set off in search of it in a Humvee.

Using the cease-fire orders from President Bush, the Americans are able to raid and secure the bunkers without any bloodshed. There, among other goods plundered from Kuwait, they find the gold. As they are leaving they see a prisoner executed by the newly arrived Iraqi Republican Guard troops, and decide to abandon their plan to "grab the gold and go." They rescue a group of Iraqi prisoners including a local rebel leader and start a private mini-war against Saddam's loyalist soldiers.

After the firefight in the village and arrival of the Iraqi reinforcements, the Americans' vehicles are destroyed as they blunder into a minefield and the Iraqi soldiers capture Troy. A group of rebels rescue the remaining Americans and take them to their underground hideout. There, Conrad, Chief and Archie agree to help the rebels and their families reach the Iranian border, but not before they rescue Troy.

Meanwhile, Troy has been taken to an underground bunker. Placed in a room full of Kuwaiti cell phones, he manages to call his wife and tells her to report his location to the Army. His call is cut short when he is dragged out and transferred to an interrogation room. Electrical wires are placed around his ears, and an Iraqi intelligence officer, Captain Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), berates him about the hypocrisy of American involvement in the region. Troy is subjected to several electric shocks, and is finally forced to drink motor oil by Saïd, who had lost his family during the American bombing of Baghdad.

The group meet up with a band of Iraqi Army deserters who are willing to help them by selling them a fleet of luxury cars stolen from Kuwait. Among these vehicles was the Infiniti M30 Convertible, which was referenced throughout the movie by Chief. With these cars they go to the bunker to save Troy, and scare away most of its defenders by spreading the rumor that an enraged Saddam is coming to kill them. The Infiniti Convertible is blown up and after storming the bunker they free Troy, who spares the life of his torturer, as well as more Shi'ites held in a dungeon. Leaving the complex, they are attacked by an armed helicopter, which Chief destroys by throwing a Nerf ball rigged with explosives at it. During a shootout with a couple of returning Republican Guards, Troy and Conrad are shot. Conrad Vig dies, and Troy, suffering from a punctured lung, has a flutter valve placed on his chest to allow air to escape.

Archie then makes radio contact with Walter at base asking for a transport, offering the drivers $100,000 each. He then orders that each of the Shi'ites be given a bar of gold and the rest buried. Planning to help the Shi'ites escape, they make their way to the Iranian border, heavily guarded by government forces. After finally reaching the border they are stopped by the American soldiers and arrested. Archie finally offers the rest of the gold to the other Americans in exchange for letting the refugees through.

The movie closes stating that all of the soldiers were cleared of their charges thanks to Adriana Cruz's reporting. Archie and Chief now work as military advisers to action films, and Troy is the owner of a carpet store. The closing epilogue states that the stolen gold was returned to Kuwait, although the Kuwaitis reported some was missing.

Production[edit | edit source]

Three Kings was filmed in the deserts of Arizona, California and Mexico, with many of the extras played by real-life Iraqi refugees. According to Russell, two of the cast members had "personally defaced 300 murals of Saddam."[2]

After one of the military advisors to the film died during production, Russell said the death was "perhaps due to chemicals he was exposed to in the Gulf."[2]

Script controversy[edit | edit source]

Former stand-up comic John Ridley had originally written the screenplay, then titled Spoils of War, as an experiment to see how fast he could write and sell a movie. The writing took him seven days, and Warner Bros. bought it 18 days later. When the studio showed a list of their purchased scripts to Russell, the one-sentence description of Spoils of War, "heist set in the Gulf War", appealed to him. Although Russell claimed he never read Ridley's script, so as not "to pollute my own idea", he admits that "John gets credit where it's due. The germ of the idea that I took was his."[2]

Ridley maintains that Russell shut him out of the process, saying "I never heard a word while he was shooting the movie. Never saw any of the script changes. And then finally, a year later, I get a copy of the script, and my name isn't even on it."[3] Although Warner Brothers worked out a deal to give Ridley a "story by" credit, Ridley remains unhappy with the experience, and has blocked Russell's efforts to publish the Three Kings screenplay in book form.[3]

Casting[edit | edit source]

Russell penned the script with several actors in mind. Although Spike Jonze had never acted in a movie before, Russell wrote the part of Conrad Vig specifically for him, and the two practiced Conrad's southern accent over the phone while Jonze directed his first feature film, Being John Malkovich. Although Russell had to convince a wary Warner Brothers to cast an inexperienced actor in such a large role, he eventually won out. Russell said Jonze's lack of previous acting work was beneficial to the film, citing the "chaos that a nonactor brings to the set...he really shakes things up."[4]

The part of Archie Gates was originally planned for Clint Eastwood, but Russell decided to rewrite it as a younger character. George Clooney eventually saw a copy of the script and was "blown away" by it. When he heard the part was being re-written, he jumped at the chance to get involved. At this point in Clooney's career, he was best known for his role as the handsome Dr. Doug Ross on the popular television drama ER. Clooney was ready to pursue a role in film. Unfortunately, Russell seemed unwilling to cast Clooney in the role.

Persistent, Clooney sent a humorously self-deprecating letter signed "George Clooney, TV actor" to Russell asking for the part, and showed up at Russell's New York City apartment to plead his case. Russell still wasn't satisfied that Clooney could portray the character. He instead convinced Nicolas Cage to play the role. However, when Cage became unavailable after being cast in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, Russell gave the part to Clooney.[4] Russell later stated that Clooney "was meant to play the part."[5]

Many of the Iraqi roles were played by real Iraqi refugees in the United States. (Similar technique was used in The Killing Fields.)

Russell and Wahlberg reunited for the 2004 existential comedy film, I Heart Huckabees.

Film techniques[edit | edit source]

Much to the chagrin of Warner Bros., Russell decided to use a number of experimental cinematic techniques in the film. Handheld cameras and Steadicam shots were used to give the film a journalistic feel. In addition, Russell shot the film on Ektachrome slide photography stock, and used the bleach bypass process, both to reproduce "the odd color of the newspaper images [of the Gulf War]." Though the process produced a unique quality to the film, it was exceedingly difficult to develop, and many film labs would not provide insurance for the slide films if they did not develop properly. Russell feared that the scenes would need to be reshot until finally a lab was found that could develop the slide films.

Russell also credited the realism of the firefights to the film's cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, who had shot several documentaries on South American civil wars, saying "he knew what it was like to be in that kind of world."[5]

All of the explosions in the movie were filmed in one shot, as opposed to a typical movie where each would have been covered by multiple cameras. Russell explained, "to me that's more real. The car's blowing up on this guy, and we just park the camera. Of course the producer says, 'we gotta run three cameras!' But if I cut three ways, then it just looks like an action picture."[2] Russell also had the foley department tone down the sounds of gunfire, saying he didn't want to "Bruce Willis-ize" the film."[2]

One frequently noted shot in the film is an image of a bullet piercing a number of internal organs, releasing bile into the abdominal cavity, used when Gates is describing sepsis as the effect of a gunshot wound. This internal camera is again used when SFC Barlow is shot in the torso and his chest begins to fill with air, crushing his lung. Both of these scenes were inspired by Russell asking an emergency room doctor friend "What's the weirdest wound you've ever seen?"[2] It also erupted a minor controversy, when Russell began to joke around that the gunshots were fired into a real corpse; a statement everyone vehemently denied later.[6]

Conflict[edit | edit source]



The production process of Three Kings was particularly difficult for Russell, who was taking a variety of risks with what was a $42 million studio film. At the time it was made, Warner Bros. had not financed an auteur film in many years and executives were hesitant to put such money in the hands of filmmakers who were used to working independently. The political overtones of the film also worried the studio, especially with conflict still apparent in the Middle East.[7]

As a result, Warner Bros. gave Russell a number of limitations. The shooting schedule was reduced to only 68 days instead of the 80 Russell had initially asked for.[8] The studio wanted the budget to be lowered to $35 million. Executives were also constantly urging the removal of more violent scenes, such as the exploding cow and the shooting of an Iraqi woman. Russell was also forced to sign a legal document requiring that scenes containing pedophilia accusations against Michael Jackson be removed from the film.[7] The pressure of delivering the film began to become evident in Russell.

The shoot took place in Arizona during October and proved to be grueling. The crew were unused to the improvisational, on-the-fly directing style that Russell implemented. Rather than preparing organized shot lists, Russell preferred to use ideas as they came to him, often demanding longer hours. Early on, much of the crew began to feel a dislike for these methods and Russell along with them.[7] Clooney noted that "there's an element of David that was in way over his head... he was vulnerable and selfish, and it would manifest itself in a lot of yelling." When Russell's frustration would lead to outbursts, Clooney would take it upon himself to defend crew members and extras, leading to increased tensions.[7]

When an extra had an epileptic seizure on set, Clooney ran to his aid while Russell apparently remained indifferent to the matter. Afterward, Clooney scolded Russell for ignoring the incident, though Russell later stated that he was busy setting up a shot some yards away from the extra and wasn't aware that the extra had suffered a seizure.[7]

Another on-set conflict between the two arose while shooting footage on a Humvee with a camera mounted to it. Clooney recalls Russell yelling at the driver to drive faster. Clooney then approached the director, telling him to "knock it off".[7] Russell remembers the incident differently: "The camera broke, we were losing the day and I was upset about that. So I jumped off the truck and I was like, 'Fuck!' I was just kicking the dirt and everything like that. And then George had this big thing about defending the driver, whom I hadn't really said anything to."[7]

Also during the shoot, Clooney was exhausted as he was still shooting ER in Los Angeles three days a week, while working on Three Kings the other four.[7] He had even more difficulty with the amount of improvisation the film required. Regardless, Clooney was determined to stay with the role. Loyal to the script, Clooney helped convince executives to support certain aspects of the film (such as the exploding cow scene) even after he was urged to drop out of production, as his contract called for his compensation with or without his decision to stay in the film.

After a number of arguments, Clooney wrote Russell a letter that harshly criticized Russell's behavior in a last attempt to make peace between the two, days before their biggest fight would break out during the filming of the movie's finale. In it, the three lead characters attempt to escort Iraqi rebels across the border to Iran. There were a number of actors and extras in the scene, as well as other crucial elements, such as helicopters flying overhead and landing in the center of the location.

The fight began after an extra was having difficulty throwing Ice Cube's character to the ground. After a number of takes, Russell came to the extra and put him through the motions of the action. Some individuals present on the set during the incident state that Russell was simply showing the extra how to convincingly act in the scene. However, Clooney and others thought that Russell had violently thrown the extra to the ground. Clooney recalls: "We were trying to get a shot and then he went berserk. He went nuts on an extra."[8] Clooney approached a frustrated Russell and began scolding him again, coming to the extra's defense. The two began shouting at one another before entering a physical fight. Second assistant director Paul Bernard was so fed up with the experience when the fight broke out that he put down his camera and walked off the set, effectively quitting.[7]

Clooney concludes, "Will I work with David ever again? Absolutely not. Never. Do I think he's tremendously talented and do I think he should be nominated for Oscars? Yeah." Russell offered a different view, saying "we're both passionate guys who are the two biggest authorities on the set," and maintaining that the two continue to be friends. Ice Cube felt the conflict helped the movie, saying "it kind of kicked the set into a different gear where everybody was focused and we finished strong. I wouldn't mind if the director and the star got into an argument on all of my movies."[8]

Though the fight was initially kept under wraps, both Russell and Clooney eventually gave official statements saying that the argument had blown over and neither harbored any ill will towards the other. However, Clooney continued to describe the event in later interviews, as well as the cover story of the October 2003 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in which he states: "I would not stand for him humiliating and yelling and screaming at crew members, who weren't allowed to defend themselves. I don't believe in it and it makes me crazy. So my job was then to humiliate the people who were doing the humiliating."

Executive producer and production manager Gregory Goodman later stated about Clooney's comments in the media, "It doesn't reflect well on [Clooney]. It's like some stupid sandbox quarrel."[7]

Hijinks[edit | edit source]

Clooney, who has been known as a prankster on the set of his movies, had a memorable run-in on set with co-star Nora Dunn. Clooney was standing atop a Humvee before shooting began when Dunn began heckling him from Template:Convert away. Clooney yelled "You watch it because I'll hit you. I'm not scared of hitting women!", to which Dunn replied "Come on, man!" Hearing this, Clooney impaled an apple on the antenna of the vehicle, then catapulted it towards Dunn, hitting her in the forehead. Although Dunn claimed Clooney almost knocked her out, he responded "I come from Kentucky, where we would have snowball fights, and when you smack somebody in the head really good, it's the greatest sound and the greatest feeling, and you never consider the fact that it's gotta hurt like hell. And then later, because they're crying, you go, 'Oh... I'm so sorry.'" Clooney noted that the one cast member he avoided playing tricks on was Ice Cube, saying "Cube's not gonna take it. He doesn't have to. He's from South Central."[9]

Cast[edit | edit source]

  • George Clooney as Major Archie Gates, a career Special Forces soldier close to retirement, who is disillusioned with the war.
  • Mark Wahlberg as Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow, who works in an office back in the United States and has a wife and baby daughter at home.
  • Ice Cube as Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin, an airline baggage handler who believes he is protected by a ring of "Jesus-fire".
  • Spike Jonze as Private First Class Conrad Vig a jobless, semi-literate soldier from a group home who looks up to Troy.
  • Cliff Curtis as Amir Abdullah a Shi'ite Iraqi rebel who has been captured by Hussein's troops. Educated in the US at Bowling Green State University he was an entrepreneur in Baghdad, running several cafes before they were destroyed by Coalition bombs.
  • Nora Dunn as Adriana Cruz, a tough cable news correspondent who is determined to get a good story.
  • Jamie Kennedy as Specialist Walter Wogaman, an unintelligent soldier who Archie uses to distract Adrianna.
  • Saïd Taghmaoui as Captain Saïd, an Iraqi interrogator who tortures Barlow with electric shocks after he is captured.
  • Mykelti Williamson as Colonel Ron Horn, Archie's superior officer, who discovers the plan to steal the gold.
  • Holt McCallany as Captain Doug Van Meter, Troy's superior officer, an obstreperous stickler for the rules who claims he grew up wanting to be either a veterinarian or a CIA sharpshooter.
  • Judy Greer as Cathy Daitch, a journalist competing with Adrianna who has sex with Archie early in the film.
  • Liz Stauber as Debbie Barlow, Troy's wife.

Use in Popular Culture[edit | edit source]

In the Video Game Battlefield: Bad Company the plot is about a four man squad which finds gold in the middle of a conflict. In a similar manner to the movie, they go AWOL searching for the gold. The main character's in Battlefield: Bad Company last name is "Marlow" which is just one letter off of "Barlow" showing the EA tribute to the movie. The characters personalities resemble those of the movie; i.e. Marlow-Barlow, Sweetwater-Elgin, Haggard-Vig, Redford-Gates.

The Blue Scholars include a clip from the movie in their song Three Kings on their self titled album.

Re-release[edit | edit source]

In 2004 Warner Bros., feeling the film had become relevant again due to the Iraq War, decided to re-release it in theaters and on DVD. Having no additional footage to add, Russell instead shot Soldiers Pay, a short documentary about the Iraq War, to accompany the film. Taking its name from William Faulkner's first novel of the same name about an airman's return home in the aftermath of World War I,[10] Russell said the documentary examined "both sides of the war, people who feel good about the war, who believe in the mission, people who feel bad."[7] While making the documentary Russell spoke with both Iraqis and U.S. troops, including SSG. Matt Novak, whom Russell tracked down with the help of his brother-in-law, a private investigator.[11] Asked how the Iraqis he had interviewed felt about the war, Russell said Template:Blockquote Although Russell had planned to release the film before November 2004, hoping to "perhaps make a difference before the election,"[7] Warner Brothers abandoned the project at the last minute, citing "controversy surrounding the documentary, combined with a later-than-expected arrival of the bonus footage".[7] Russell disputed the time-crunch excuse, saying "I think if they really wanted to they could make it happen."[7] Eventually, the documentary was purchased by the Independent Film Channel, where it was aired in its entirety the night before the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election.[10]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Ebert, Roger. "Three Kings", Chicago Sun-Times, October 4, 1999. Retrieved on 2006-09-26. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Jeffery M., Anderson. "The Fourth King", Combustible Celluloid, September 25, 1999. Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Easy Writer", Entertainment Weekly, October 8, 1999. Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Wolk, Josh. "'Three' Score", Entertainment Weekly, October 1, 1999. Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Sragow, Michael. "King of Kings",, January 13, 2000. Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 
  6. BBC News | Entertainment | Clooney corpse report denied
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 Waxman, Sharon (2005). Rebels on the Backlot. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-054017-6. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Nashawaty, Chris. "Three the Hard Way", Entertainment Weekly, October 8, 1999. Retrieved on 2006-09-28. 
  9. Wolk, Josh. "Fight Club", Entertainment Weekly, October 13, 1999. Retrieved on 2006-09-28. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Snipes, Stephanie. "'Three Kings' director looks at Iraq war", CNN, November 1, 2004. Retrieved on 2006-09-26. 
  11. Lim, Dennis. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", The Village Voice, September 28, 2004. Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Template:David O. Russell

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