John Frankenheimer had a knack for
swift, tense storytelling, and that knack is visible even here, in one
of his lesser-known films. The Fourth War has some minor tonal
confusion about it - it's never quite sure if it's a straight
thriller or a dark satire. There are some very obvious thriller set-pieces,
but there are also sequences played as dark, satirical geopolitical
metaphors. Despite the fact that these different elements don't fully
mesh, Frankenheimer's direction keeps the film swift, punchy, and
involving to the extent that we aren't entirely conscious of the movie's
flaws as they play out.
Roy Scheider plays Col. Jack Knowles,
new commanding officer of an Army station in West Germany near the Czech
border, during the waning days of the Cold War. Knowles is a Vietnam-tested
hardass whose lack of professionalism has landed him a string of no-man's-land
assignments. The West German commission is his first "real" post
in some time. He's been sponsored by his old friend, General Hackworth
(Harry Dean Stanton), who has gone out on a limb to get Knowles the
On his first patrol of the perimeter,
Knowles and the squad that accompanies him watch as a Czech defector
runs toward the border only to be shot down by Soviet troops led by
Col. Valachev (Jurgen Prochnow). Enraged, Knowles throws a snowball
at his counterpart - and this act precipitates an escalating private
war between the two officers that sustains the remainder of the film.
Scheider is quite good as the short-tempered,
grudge-bearing Knowles. He evinces a deep inner anger that suggests
insurmountable personal shortcomings. That the actor brings this to
the surface is especially impressive, since Knowles' backstory is
Prochnow makes a good foe for Scheider,
with his rugged face and piercing eyes, at first merely goading Knowles
with looks and taunting grins. As things get more intense - Knowles
blowing up one of Valachev's watchtowers, for example - the Russian
displays an awareness that Knowles is not in his right mind. And Knowles
is certainly a loose cannon. His single-minded vengefulness stands in
for American hostility toward the USSR during the entirety of the Cold
War - a somewhat irrational, fearful attitude that was perhaps more
dangerous in itself than anything the Russians actually represented.
Satire rears its head when Knowles
temporarily takes three of Valachev's soldiers hostage at forces them
to sing "Happy Birthday" to him over the Russians' radios. The
movie's conclusion, which finds Knowles and Valachev at each other's
throats as they break through the ice over a frozen lake, also contains
some dark humor, just as it suggests the climax of von Stroheim's
Greed. Frankenheimer strives to maintain a consistent tone and a
rapid pace, and is mostly successful. The performances by all of the
key actors, including Tim Reid as Knowles' executive officer, are
Image and Sound
This MOD disc, part of MGM's Limited Edition Collection, looks terrific.
The enhanced transfer looks crisp, with mild grain and no compression
artifacts. Color and contrast are strong. Night scenes are solid, with
no breakup in the blacks. The stereo soundtrack is clear if unspectacular.
Bill Conti's dramatic, driving score comes across well.
No extra features are included.
The Fourth War
is a searching Cold War thriller that boils down the absurdity of the
conflict to the interpersonal grievances between two over-trained, combat-hungry
military officers. Frankenheimer keeps things brisk and always interesting
throughout the compact 90-minute film. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.