MOVIES: Cold War Relics Fight On

By Brian Brennan
CALGARY, Alberta, 1989

On the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, in a mock English pub converted temporarily into a Bavarian inn, the night air holds a solemn stillness as the director John Frankenheimer shoots the pivotal scene of his latest movie.

A uniformed Soviet army officer appears, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the smoke-filled bar of the Gasthof Zum Goldenen Rossel, situated on the western side of the German-Czechoslovak border. He points his automatic pistol at a United States Army colonel played by Roy Scheider and warns that he will kill the American if he continues venturing nightly across the heavily-guarded border to taunt the soldiers on the other side. ”You’ve been making such a habit of coming to me,” says the Russian with measured sarcasm, ”I thought it was time I returned the compliment.”

It’s the kind of breath-catching, international-level confrontation that Mr. Frankenheimer has explored before in such thrillers as ”Black Sunday” and ”The Train,” but with a difference. In this film, tentatively titled ”The Fourth War,” there are no heroes or villains. ”These guys are dinosaurs,” says Mr. Frankenheimer, a rangy 59-year-old with a perpetually exasperated expression. ”In the age of glasnost, you don’t need them. They’re yesterday’s business.”

The $14.5 million action drama, being shot near the site of the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, is meant in Mr. Frankenheimer’s mind to show how a dangerous game of one-upmanship played across the border by two trigger-happy colonels could easily escalate into a major East-West conflict. As it happens, the only person to get killed, early in the film, is a Czechoslovak defector. That’s why Mr. Frankenheimer and Mr. Scheider, both antiwar advocates, are not happy with the working title.

”What we’re trying to show, without hitting people on the head -boom, boom, boom – is that war is an unthinkable alternative,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. Adds Mr. Scheider, ”We’re sick of it. The Russians are sick of it. The people who wage war now are the lunatic fringe. Alternative titles being discussed by the two men are ”Game of Honor” and ”Face Off.”

The movie, which also stars Jurgen Prochnow as the Soviet colonel, Tim Reid as the United States second-in-command, Harry Dean Stanton as the United States commanding general, and a newcomer, Lara Harris, as a Czechoslovak dissident, is on a 10-week shooting schedule here, up to the end of April.

This has meant a race against time to complete the key outdoor scenes before the snows recede. Fourteen months ago, during the Winter Olympics, southern Alberta was sunning in 50-degree temperatures, and similar weather this year would have spelled major trouble for the film.

Robert Rosen, the line producer, who was in Calgary during the Olympics, working with Mr. Frankenheimer on the Don Johnson film ”Dead-Bang,” says he came prepared this time to have artificial snow made, if warranted, ”but when the Olympic Games – I think their budget is bigger than ours – couldn’t make snow because the weather was too warm, what did I think I was going to do?” Mr. Rosen says he decided eventually to gamble on Calgary again, after scouting winter locations in Europe and eastern Canada because – according to local weather office surveys – springtime in the Canadian Rockies doesn’t usually arrive until the middle of April.

As it turned out, temperatures in southern Alberta dropped to 40 below zero during the first week of filming in mid-February, and snow fell steadily during the weeks after that. ”It wasn’t the ideal stuff to act in,” says Mr. Scheider, who cracked a rib during a fist fight scene with Mr. Prochnow, which finished in a hole in the ice of a frozen river. ”But we damn well had to take advantage of it.”

Mr. Prochnow, a flinty-eyed 47-year-old Berliner who has appeared in such American films as ”Dune” and ”Beverly Hills Cop II” since he starred as the U-boat commander in the 1980 German film ”Das Boot,” dislocated his knee in the same fight, which took two weeks to film, and which both actors insisted on completing without time out for recovery after their injuries.

”I cannot tell you the hardships these guys had to go through,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. ”It’s been a very tough physical picture for both of them.” Despite the hardships, Mr. Prochnow says he welcomed the chance to play a Russian who isn’t a stereotyped villain. ”In this film, there are good guys and bad guys on both sides. The politics have changed, and they don’t know how to cope. The enemy is gone, so what do you do?”

For Mr. Frankenheimer, the film brings another opportunity to re-establish his place in the American commercial mainstream after an up-and-down 32-year directing career. It ascended last year with the hit re-release of his 1962 classic, ”The Manchurian Candidate,” and then dipped again with the disappointing ”Dead-Bang,” a thriller in which Don Johnson plays a Los Angeles homicide detective pitted against a neo-Nazi killer.

”I have no second thought about ”Dead-Bang,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. ”I obviously think the movie is a hell of a lot better than some of the critics do. But in this business, you have to be willing to take the chance, to let the chips fall.”

With ”The Fourth War,” developed from an original concept by a Los Angeles writer, Stephen Peters, the director has what Mr. Scheider calls ”a subject that’s finally worthy of his talents” after a string of recent disappointments. For Mr. Scheider, the film brings an opportunity to tackle a juicy tough guy role again, after such technological extravaganzas as ”Blue Thunder” and ”2010,” in which the 53-year-old actor played second banana to the special effects.

The part of the renegade American colonel in ”The Fourth War” isn’t as substantial as that of the self-destructive Bob Fosse in ”All That Jazz” (”that, in my career, is like ‘Citizen Kane’ – I don’t even count it”), but it is ”certainly as good as any other part I’ve ever had.”

Mr. Frankenheimer says he is ”cautiously optimistic” about the film’s chances for success. The script has been rewritten and updated by Kenneth Ross, who collaborated with the director on ”Black Sunday,” to reflect the easing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and to take into account such contemporary events as the recent Soviet elections, and the upcoming ”Glasnost Bowl” football game in Moscow between the Universities of Southern California and Illinois. ”We’ve tried to make the picture in terms of today,” says Mr. Frankenheimer. ”I think it has a real shot.”

No domestic release date has been set for the film, produced by Wolf Schmidt through his company, Los Angeles-based Kodiak Films Inc. Foreign release is scheduled for Christmas of 1990. Could it play the Soviet Union? ”I’m making it in a way that it could – the Russians certainly don’t come off in this thing as heavies,” replies Mr. Frankenheimer. ”But let’s put it this way, I’m more interested in it playing Kansas City.”

Copyright © 1989 Brian Brennan

Originally published by The New York Times, April 30, 1989

References and further reading:
The Fourth War trailer on Youtube