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 job.
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 very limited.
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 uniformly fine.
Image and Sound
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.