Bucking Hollywood’s commercial trend: John Frankenheimer

January, 2015

The movie was called The Fourth War. It took its title from Albert Einstein, who said he didn’t know how a third World War would be fought, or with what. “I can, however, predict that the fourth World War will be waged with sticks and stones.”

Publicity photo via Wikipedia
Publicity photo via Wikipedia

John Frankenheimer, the movie’s director, wasn’t happy with the title. Neither was his star, Roy Scheider. Both were anti-war advocates. “What we’re trying to show, without hitting people on the head – boom, boom, boom – is that war is an unthinkable alternative,” said Frankenheimer. “We’re sick of it. The Russians are sick of it. The people who wage war now are the lunatic fringe.”

The year was 1989. The Cold War was thawing and a spirit of glasnost was prevailing. Alternative titles being discussed by Frankenheimer and Scheider were Game of Honor and Face Off.

The movie, being shot in the Canadian Rockies near the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics, was set on the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. Scheider played a trigger-happy American army colonel who harboured a grudge against the Soviets. Jurgen Prochnow played his opposite number, a Soviet officer with a similar chip on his shoulder. In a pivotal scene, Prochnow pointed a gun at Scheider and warned that he would kill the American if he kept venturing nightly across the border to taunt the soldiers on the other side.

It was the kind of confrontation that Frankenheimer had explored before in such thrillers as Black Sunday and The Train, but with a difference. In The Fourth War, there were no heroes or villains. “These guys are dinosaurs,” said Frankenheimer. “In the age of glasnost, you don’t need them. They’re yesterday’s business. Both men scare the hell out of me. They’re a bomb waiting to explode.”

In another key scene, shot in 40-below-zero temperatures, Scheider and Prochnow waged a fist fight with one another that ended in a hole in the ice of a frozen river. Scheider cracked a rib during the scene and Prochnow dislocated his knee. Yet both actors insisted on completing the scene without taking time out for recovery from their injuries. “It wasn’t the ideal stuff to act in,” said Scheider. “But we damn well had to take advantage of it.”

“I cannot tell you the hardships these guys had to go through,” said Frankenheimer. “It’s been a very tough physical picture for both of them.”

For the 59-year-old Frankenheimer, The Fourth War offered another opportunity to re-establish his place in the American mainstream after an up-and-down 32-year directing career. During the 1970s and 1980s his career had stumbled because of his problems with alcohol. It ascended in 1988 with the hit re-release of his 1962 classic, The Manchurian Candidate, but then dipped again with the disappointing Dead-Bang, a thriller in which Don Johnson played a Los Angeles homicide detective pitted against a neo-Nazi killer.

“I have no second thought about Dead-Bang,” said 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.” 

Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Manchurian Candidate
During filming of John Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate, a newspaper photographer by the name of Phil Stanziola captured this image of Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra, standing on small pier in New York’s Central Park. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

 Frankenheimer said he was “cautiously optimistic” about The Fourth War’s chances for success. The screenplay had been rewritten from an earlier draft to reflect the easing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and to take into account such recent events as the 1989 Soviet elections and a hoped-for attempt to stage an American college football game in Moscow. (The football plan later collapsed.) “We’ve tried to make the picture in terms of today,” said Frankenheimer. “I think it has a real shot.”

He felt lucky to have been able to make the $14.5 million film because it was hard to raise money for non-mainstream movies. “It’s not in Hollywood’s commercial tradition, aimed strictly for bottom-line grosses.”

Domestic release of the film was scheduled for the spring of 1990. Foreign release was scheduled for Christmas of that year. Could it play the Soviet Union? “I’m making it in a way that it could,” said Frankenheimer. “The Russians certainly don’t come off in this thing as heavies. But let’s put it this way, I’m more interested in it playing Kansas City.”

The movie title stayed. The Fourth War was released in March 1990 to respectable reviews. But, as Frankenheimer predicted, it didn’t do well commercially. Nor did Frankenheimer’s next film, 1991’s Year of the Gun, an action thriller starring Sharon Stone and Andrew McCarthy. That could have spelled the end of Frankenheimer’s commercial directing career, but he roared back during the years following with some strong work for television. In 1994, he won a directing Emmy for Against the Wall, a prison drama. In 1996, he won an Emmy for The Burning Season, a film about Chico Mendes’s attempt to protect the Brazilian rainforest. When he won the 1998 Emmy for George Wallace, Frankenheimer spoke out publicly about his drinking.

He said he stopped drinking in 1980. “I had a problem; it took a toll on me,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “And the state of mind you’re in, when you have a problem like that, even when you’re not drunk, is the most dangerous time. Because you make decisions that are not totally in your best interest, about your life, about your career choices, and everything.” He quit drinking when he realized he couldn’t continue on like that. “I figured I’d better do something about it, because otherwise I was going to die.” 

Frankenheimer continued to score Emmy nominations into the first part of the 21st century. His last was in 2002 for Path to War, a film about the Johnson administration’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, starring Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland and Alec Baldwin. Frankenheimer died two months after the movie aired on HBO, at age 72 of a stroke suffered after spinal surgery. Actor Gambon, who played President Johnson in Path to War, told the Times that Frankenheimer’s enthusiasm and energy amazed him and his fellow actors. “He had more energy than someone half his age.” 

© Brian Brennan 2015

Further reading and viewing:

Wikipedia page for John Frankenheimer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Frankenheimer

An interview with John Frankenheimer about movies and the auteur theory:

 Trailer for The Fourth War:

Brian Brennan logo, text and photo combined


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