Fourth War
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Fourth War

A good storyteller can derive a political thriller from just about any period of history. There have been those engaged in covert activities and international espionage since man took up arms against the tribe down the road that followed a different flag. The Bible has a number of sections devoted to the dispatch of spies and the punishment of being caught. One of the most fruitful periods of history for spy thrillers was without a doubt the cold war. This is the era that resulted in the rapid proliferation not only of deadly nuclear weapons capable destroying the globe but also the myriad of entertainment venues that dominated television and films of the sixties, this was the time of James Bond and the ‘Man from ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ Unlike most trends in entertainment this one did not fade away, it continued to grow. By the Nineties the genre had once again began to transmogrify. The end of the Cold War necessitated alterations in the direction and underlying precepts of the espionage thrillers. This was a transitional period in the geo-political make-up of the world which was readily reflected in the entertainment industry with stories of men who came of age in a war torn world only to find the rules suddenly changed as the United States and Soviet Union move towards an uneasy cessation of overt hostilities. The question becomes ‘What do warriors do without a war?’ This quagmire was modified at this time to encompass the spy without a mission, or at least without a clear cut official mandate. ‘The Forth War’, released in 1990 was an example of this and although not the best example of the newly emerging genre variation it is notable for several reasons including an excellent cast and direction by one of the leading filmmakers to etch his mark in action thrillers. One reason that this film had so much going for it but fell short of its potential is that it was made during this intermediary period for the cast, crew and audience. This is a situation akin to retooling a manufacturing plant. It takes time for the dust to settle and proficient professionals to make the appropriate stylistic modifications. This movie has earned its place in the recent release set of Classic films on Manufactured on demand by MGM/UA. Like other flicks represent here it is not the best of its genre but it well represents some significant point in cinema.

In 1988 On the German - Czechoslovakia border hostilities may have subsided at least to some extent but the message was not fully received by the men that have guarded that political demarcation for so many years. For Colonel Jack Knowles (Roy Scheider) of the United States and his Soviet opposite number Colonel Valachev (Jürgen Prochnow) it is difficult to abandon what amounts to a lifetime of social indoctrination and decades of intense military training. Knowles is an exceptionally decorated career military man who garnered a reputation for being difficult to control. This record was the cause for being stationed in West Germany as far away from a significant post as the Pentagon could arrange. Now he stares across a stretch of land barely 60 feet across with the eyes of Valachev unblinkingly glaring back. The situation has fallen into a routine albeit a tense one with both sides one the verge of resuming the old hostilities. All that was necessary to spark the powder keg both sides sat upon was a single instance that could be readily misinterpreted as hostile. That event came about one day when a man on the Czechoslovakian side of no-man’s land makes a desperate run for the West. Just before he can reach the safety of the American controlled West German border he is shot and killed. This ignites the tensions barely held in check just beneath the surface push both men to the brink of losing the little control they still manage to command. This rapidly gains a momentum of its own threatening to once again push the superpowers to the edge of the abyss of full out war. Knowles is not the kind of man who can stand by while a person is killed trying to escape the Communist regime he has spent so much of his career hating. The resulting game of escalation and response does make for a thrilling scenario but as noted the film does not fully utilize the talent behind this story. The Director, John Frankenheimer, already had an illustrious position as a politically oriented filmmaker when he undertook this project. He demonstrated his ability to present a complicated story line with finesse in movies like ‘Black Sunday’, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ and one of the movies that is seen as the epitome of the Cold War thrillers, ‘Seven Days in May’. To think that a director of this magnitude would just slip in the presentation of his talent is unthinkable. This movie was basically a rebuilding year for him as he recalibrated his stylistic expression. After this movie he did direct films more in the crime genre although his perchance for fast pace action remained. Some of the trouble with the movie can be attributed to the script. It was written by Stephen Peters based on his own novel but it offered little in the way of excitement and suspense to serve as a foundation. This way is first feature length screenplay and in more experienced hands perhaps it would have been tighter, exhibiting better continuity. He establishes the ideological difference between the men and goes on to show that despite that culturally infused prejudice they are cut from precisely the same cloth. Filling the roles is a pair of actors perfectly suited to present these powerful yet strongly conflicted men. Both Scheider and Prochnow have taken on characters similar in disposition to the ones here so it is not a case that they were out of their element. As talented the actors and gifted the director this movie shoes just how much this genre depends on the cohesiveness of the script.

Posted 06/26/11

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