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THE FOURTH WAR (Movie Review)


Army.ca Fixture
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Sometimes there is that rare event in the history of film, that great combination of actors, directors and story that come together and result in a truly classic movie. Then there is The Fourth War.

A little while back I was engaged in my favourite Sunday morning activity. That is lying as prone as possible on the couch with my hand firmly on the remote and clicking through the channels. As you can see I‘m a man who takes that "day of rest thing" literally.

Unfortunately the "Boss" was right, fifty-seven or in my case (satellite) a couple of hundred channels and nothing on. At least nothing that could catch and maintain my limited attention span.

No problem that is why the almighty invented videos. There perched on the same wall unit, as my TV was my fairly extensive collection of videos. Yeah I know I should have DVD, but what can I say, I‘m a bit of a xenophobe. Hey my collection of Beta and eight tracks were really hard to part with.

I sat there, OK lay there, scanning the shelves for something worthy enough to actually force myself from the prone and exert enough energy to slip it into the VCR. My collection can be divided into two main parts. Those movies that I love and enjoy so much that I just have to have a copy of at almost any cost. The others are usually stuff that I grab out of the bargain bin at Blockbuster or elsewhere. Those that look mildly interesting and if I watch it once I‘ve got my money‘s worth.

The Fourth War definitely falls into that second category. I know it‘s been off the shelf a couple of times and even loaned out to another poor soul. However I‘m sure that I originally saw it on the large screen. It was probably while I was still in the Army, one of those Saturday night‘s when a bunch of us rolled down to catch the latest military flick and tear it apart before descending on some helpless adult beverage parlour.

At first glance the pedigree of this movie is impressive. The director is John Frankenheimer, he whose list of accomplishments is too many to list here in parentheses after his name. It stars Roy Schneider, a journeyman actor, who also has an impressive collection of roles under his belt. Rounding out the cast are Tim Reid (WKRP in Cincinnati), Jurgen Prochnow and Harry Dean Stanton. Not a bad cast overall, well three out of four anyway.

The military technical advisor is Dale Dye, another good sign. Of course as in almost all the movies he‘s associated with he too has a small supporting role. So far so good right, now onto the plot.

Schneider plays Colonel Jack Knowles a burned out career army officer given one last chance to turn to turn his life and career around. He‘s battling a bitter divorce, alcoholism and a new military that has no need of and no longer even wants "warriors." An old friend and his commanding General (Stanton) arranges for a new post for him as commander of a small base in West Germany near the Czech Border. The cold war is in its final throes as this tale plays out. It is obvious to even Knowles that this is his final chance to turn things around.

Unfortunately he becomes obsessed with the border. This starts when he accompanies a routine border patrol and they witness a Czech defector executed in front of them in the no man‘s land that is the border. The man is killed under the express orders of the local Soviet Commander, Colonel Valachev (Prochnow). The Soviets then proceed to taunt the NATO patrol.

It seems to have a serious affect on Knowles, who to be honest is not the most balanced man to begin with. He begins to infiltrate across the border on not one but several occasions and engages in his own personal war with the Warsaw Pact troops there. This mainly consists of petty and even juvenile acts of vandalism. The impromptu birthday party scene with a group of captive Czech border guards is both humorous and somewhat disturbing.

It escalates as Valachev his Soviet counter retaliates with his own incursions across the border. By the climax of the movie this personal conflict has escalated to the point of a border skirmish and the threat of a real shooting war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

The movie was incidentally filmed in and around Calgary Alberta. This is not as odd as it sounds, as the Rocky Mountain foothills in winter make a more than adequate stand in for Bavaria especially during the winter season in which the events of the movie unfold. This is not the only time that this region has stood in for Central Europe. The low budget Charlie Sheen vehicle Cadence also used the Rockies as a substitute for the Bavarian Alps. Parts of a chase scene set in the Czech Austrian border in the James Bond film The Living Daylights were also filmed here.

The Canadian Army or at least its equipment makes a good stand in for it‘s American allies here. A Canadian base looks a lot like an American one, especially covered in snow. You just need to change the flags and a couple of signs.

Likewise as much of the Canadian military equipment and vehicles are of American design and manufacture, they are easily used here. A coat of white wash "winter camouflage" is enough to hide the slightly different paint schemes. Canada also uses quite a few European (Swiss) designed vehicles as well. Here they are just different enough to pass off as Soviet and Czech ones.

As you can see I have no problems with the technical aspects of the movie. I also have no problem with the cast, although I believe they are poorly used here. It is the plot however that I have a problem with. In theory it‘s an interesting story, but it has holes in it you could drive a Soviet tank Division through as easily as they practised to come through the Fulda Gap had WWIII ever started.

I can accept that a burned out, perhaps mentally ill senior officer can slip through the cracks and be given another command. Especially as is shown here there was a little patronage from higher ups involved. It’s happened before in real life and I can think of at least one case I know of personally.

It is however stretching even the bounds of movie land coincidence that his counterpart across the border would suffer from a similar ailment. "He didn‘t go to Vietnam and become disillusioned. He went to another country, Afghanistan...." as Stanton‘s character comments at one point.

Then there are the border incidents. I‘ve seen the "Iron Curtain" when it still existed. It was built for a single reason, to keep people from crossing it.

The builders of course claimed it was to stop the hordes of Western Europeans who would otherwise flood across to enjoy fine Lada and Trabant cars and the other benefits of the Socialist Worker‘s Paradises, and not those going the other way. Sure many did, and many more tried and failed. Some of those paid the ultimate consequence for their attempts.

Specially trained troops could (and if some rumours are true did) infiltrate across, and perhaps even leave no clue that they did so. However it is stretching the bounds of credibility that a half drunk individual could on the spur of the moment do so and make it look so easy. Of course that is what Knowles does.

That he then does it several times and they still can‘t catch him is really pushing it. Either that or the quality of Czech border guards and their back up Soviet forces was not up to what I was lead to believe twenty years back when I was briefed on them.

**** had we known that back then, I would have spent my weekend leaves partying in Prague not Stuttgart. Then again considering how easily Prochnow‘s character crosses to our side, I guess my favourite Black Forrest watering hole would have been full of my Russian opposite numbers on a Friday night. Well they might have been an improvement over the French troops.

There is of course the inevitable plot device used to escalate the situation between the protagonists. In this case it‘s a pretty damsel in distress. I think that one is cliché plot device # 6B in the Hollywood screenwriter‘s handbook. Mind the ease with which she crosses and re crosses that impenetrable border makes the efforts of the two trained soldiers pale in comparison. I guess someone put a freeway with an express line in just off camera.

That top-notch cast is for the most part misused here, the two protagonists most of all. Schneider appears to be sleepwalking through his role here. It‘s as if he didn‘t really care about the role, and it shows, oh how it shows.

Prochnow is actually worse. He turns his character into nothing more that a cliché. He’s “Evil Sadistic Russian/German/Iraqi/Vietnamese/Taliban/Commander #17A" from that same handbook.

It‘s practically impossible for Stanton to turn in a bad performance. Mind he gives it the old school try here, with his wooden character less stereotypical "Grizzled old commander/war buddy #4C". Fortunately he‘s not onscreen enough to turn in as bad a showing as he did in Red Dawn.

Tim Reid could be forgiven I guess. This is after all a long way from "Venus Flytrap or "Detective Downtown Brown" or at least in theory it is. He does manage to turn in a passable if not original performance as Schneider‘s back stabbing syncopate of a second in command.

All of the principles involved here, OK maybe except Tim, have turned in great work elsewhere. It‘s out there find it. If you really need to grab a video from the bargain bin to kill an evening dig a little deeper. There‘s got to be a gem buried at the bottom for $4.99. If this one comes up on the tube then hit the remote, and prove Bruce a liar, find something on, anything.
Heh, I know some of the people who were extras in that one. Been a while since I seen it; I think maybe now I don‘t have to bother!

Superman had scenes filmed in Alberta, also, including the "military" convoy scene where Larry Hagman has to give mouth-to-mouth to Valerie Perrine. Poor guy!

I think in both cases, a lot of stuff on loan was from private collections rather than US Army issue. Superman III used a Willy‘s Jeep, for example, that at the time belonged to Crown Surplus, a private company in Calgary.

When Legends of the Fall was filmed here, also, a bunch of us military reservists volunteered for the training cadre for the military extras - but any "official" support by the Canadian Forces didn‘t really happen. I think true CF support for a movie would be rare - it happened for Peacekeeper IIRC.

It‘s hard to tell - did you know that for Courage Under Fire, no official US support was given - and the M-1 Abrams tanks used in it are really British MBTs mocked up to look like M-1s? I was shocked when I heard that - sometimes you just never know.
Michael, sorry for the delay in seeing and replying to this. You must have snuck it in when I wasn‘t looking.

So you guys starting a new second(third?) career as movie extras out there. The James Bond Movie The Living Daylights was also partially filmed in Alberta. Either that or the Czech Army went and equipped itself with Grizzlies.

For another piece of Western Canadian Military Movie trivia. The Original Rambo movie, First Blood, was filmed in the interior of BC. The National Guardsmen were all Canadian Reservists, mostly Seaforths. Always wonder why in every scene you see them they‘re wearing ponchos? The producers I guess could find M-16‘s but no US BDUs.
One movie that I hated and got many laughs out of was that movie windtalkers. Awful acting man. The Indian guy wouldn‘t stop smiling, Nicolas Cage was supposed to be depressed in the movie or something so it somehow made him immune to being punched in the face after he killed the other windtalker with a grenade, what was it like maybe 8 japanese guys holding the Indian in place while they said cheap lines like hold him, we‘ll interrogate him, I dont know if they noticed but Nicholas Cage was infront of them comprehending if he should throw a grenade. Apparently the Japanese didnt know the trigger on their gun existed they just kept going for the bayonet attack. What was up with that large artillery cannon they had? the bomb was huge but it was worse than the smaller cannons they had.
So that was a funny movie.
Oh, please... Don‘t get me started on Wind Talkers. I squirmed in my seat the entire time and wished those Japanese were interrogating me instead.

Among the errors in the film is the fact that the windtakers were taken to the front line (never happened) and worst of all, used to "encrypt" known enemy positions. Even in WW II they knew better than to do that. The enemy knows his own positions, don‘t give him a crib by encrypting it for him!

Don‘t mean to hijack the thread, but I couldn‘t resist.
Mike you‘re forgiven. Hey it‘s your site what are we gonna do.

Arty, you on the other hand now owe us a 500 word movie review of WindTalkers and why it sucks as pennance. (just kidding, but we‘d still beinterested in a review)
I can‘t write a review but I sure as **** can complain and point out flaws.

Sometimes I‘m glad movies like Windtalkers come out, this movie is better than a comedy.
I noticed that when Sgt. Enders was firing his Thompson with one hand, and hopping backwards his bullets were hitting the ground in a straight line, with aim like that how could he lose all 15 of him men at the beginning.
does it matter? He‘s the guy all about action in his movies. but he tried to get serious with this movie and it‘s funny.
Getting disappointed because John Woo made a crappy war movie is like being disappointed that the Calgary Flames missed the playoffs this year.

Some things you kind of just go into with your eyes wide open, y‘know? ;)