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‘The Fourth War’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 26, 1990

John Frankenheimer's Cold War parable, "The Fourth War," takes its title from a quote by Albert Einstein in which the great man states, in essence, that he knows not what weapons will be used if the world engages in a third great war, but that whatever they are, the fourth war will be fought with rocks.

So much for profundity. Now ... ready, aim for the screen, fire!

Set in 1988 on the Czechoslovak-West German border, where the forces of East and West gaze uneasily at one another across a strip of earth not 20 yards wide, "The Fourth War" is about a career army colonel named Knowles (Roy Scheider) who can't adjust to the thaw in relations between the superpowers. A hawk who's outlived his usefulness, Knowles lives in a perpetual state of lock and load. While he is out on maneuvers with his troops, Czechoslovak forces chase down a defector to within a few feet of where the Americans have stopped to rest. As a result, tempers flare, each side brandishes its weapons, and a war-provoking skirmish seems imminent.

Just barely, disaster is averted, but not until Knowles reaches down into the snow and, after cupping the white stuff into a nifty snowball, heaves it at Col. Valachev (Juergen Prochnow), his opposite number in charge of the Czechoslovak army. Knowles's missile whistles past Valachev's head, smacking the side of his chopper. But Valachev's answering wet one is right on the money. "Guess he learned that in the Cuban league," says Knowles's second-in-comand (Tim Reid).

With challenges made and accepted, these two renegade colonels -- the one a product of Vietnam, the other of Afghanistan -- spend the rest of the film sneaking back and forth across the border, fighting their own private war. All the while, Harry Dean Stanton, as Gen. Hackworth, Knowles's superior officer, bellows page after page of military blather at his old friend. "This is pick-and-shovel work now, Jack. There's no room for heroics," he says. But Knowles's idea of keeping the peace is to slip into the Czechoslovak camp, grab three guards and, after passing out the party hats, force them to get down on their knees and sing "Happy Birthday" to him.

The premise is so surrealistically improbable that if Frankenheimer's approach weren't so straight-faced it might be preposterously entertaining. But the director's shoulders are braced for Atlas duty and he fails to exploit the loony potential in Stephen Peters and Kenneth Ross's script. The action culminates in a hand-to-hand, no-holds-barred fight between the two men near the border with the armies poised for battle on either side. And as Scheider, who looks 20 years older than he did in his last picture (and you thought the Berlin Wall had fallen), signals the end by tossing aside yet another snowball, you wish that you'd invested in a nuclear arsenal of your very own.

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