Let’s go back for fourths.
What is The Fourth War? The title comes from Albert Einstein, who allegedly said he didn’t know how World War III would be fought, but added that a fourth war would be fought only with sticks and stones. In 1990, this quote proved the inspiration for a war fought not between two armies, but between two driven individuals.
It’s the days of Glasnost and Perestroika, and Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Russia are becoming a thing of the past. Col. Jack Knowles (Roy Scheider, Jaws) is a brilliant military leader, but one prone to bouts of uncontrolled anger. Because of this, he’s assigned to a remote outpost on the U.S.S.R. border. On the other side is Russian Col.Valachev (Jurgen Prochnow, Das Boot). When Knowles sees Valachev shoot a man trying to defect, Knowles decides to cross the border on his own and wage a one-man war against the Russians.
I imagine there’s some alternative universe where The Fourth War is a conventional action movie, starring the likes of, say, Steven Seagal as Knowles, singlehandedly battling the Russians. That’s not the movie we got, though. Instead, we have director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) and especially a lead performance by Roy Scheider giving us an altogether different kind of war movie. While there are fights and explosions, The Fourth War is more interested in the mindset that leads up those actions, and then their consequences.
Basically, the whole movie is a character study of Knowles. Here’s a guy who knows only warfare, and finds himself with no war to fight. Knowles keeps getting more and more unhinged throughout the movie, not listening to reason and keeping up his nighttime on-foot attacks against the other side. When Knowles captures some Russian soldiers and makes them wear festive party hats, we get a satirical dig on the absurdities of war. Later, things get more serious when Knowles keeps up his attacks despite numerous warnings not to do so, eventually confronting his nemesis on the other side. Scheider, famous for playing guy-next-door types, indulges his dark side in this one. Knowles is someone to be feared, because he’s both sharply intelligent and totally unpredictable. Scheider makes the character his own, and plays it with a lot of nuance.
Keeping up with Scheider in the acting department is Harry Dean Stanton (Alien) as Knowles’ superior officer. Stanton normally play screepy weirdoes, but here he’s the voice of authority. The movie’s best scene is when he calls Knowles out on all his B.S. Stanton is so intense and commanding I wanted to shout “Yes, sir!” at the screen. Prochnow dials up the steely intensity as the Russian colonel, Lara Harris (Singles) plays a local woman who gets caught up in Knowles’ struggles, and yes that is Tim Reid of WKRP In Cincinnati as a fellow soldier. The cast is good across the board, but Scheider and Stanton are the ones taking the lead.
The Fourth War (Blu-ray) arrives with decent but not stellar audio and video. The picture is clean, but sometimes softer and grainier than we expect from high-def releases. Similarly, audio is clear of defects, but lacks the aural punch we expect from big war flicks. All we get for extras are the theatrical trailer and other trailers for Kino Lorber releases.
More of an actors’ showcase than an action blockbuster, give The Fourth War a shot.
There will be no court martial today.