The year is 1989 and the Cold War is coming to an end. Colonel Jack Knowles (Roy Scheider) was a hero in Vietnam but now, years later, his eagerness to fight has made him an outsider in the U.S. Army. Most people would rather that Knowles simply retire but, as long as there are wars to be fought, Knowles will be there. His only friend, General Hackworth (Harry Dean Stanton), arranges for Knowles to be assigned to an outpost on the West German-Czechoslovakia border. As soon as he arrives, Knowles starts to annoy his superior officer, Lt. Col. Clark (Tim Reid). When Knowles sees a Czech refugee gunned down by the Soviets while making a run for the border, he unleashes his frustration by throwing a snowball at his Russian counterpart. Like Knowles, Col. Valachev (Jurgen Prochnow) is a decorated veteran who feels lost without a war to fight. Knowles and Valachev are soon fighting their own personal war, even at the risk of starting a full-scale conflict between their two nations.
The Fourth War was one of the handful of films that John Frankenheimer directed for Cannon Films. Much as he did with The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer mixes serious thrills with dark satire in The Fourth War. Frankenheimer gets good performances from the entire cast, especially Scheider and Prochnow. The real star of the movie is the snow-covered landscape, which Frankenheimer turns into a metaphor for the entire Cold War. When Knowles and Valachev end up throwing punches on a frozen lake that’s breaking apart underneath their feet, it is not hard to see what Frankenheimer’s going for with this film. Released shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Fourth War is an underrated thriller that deserves to be rediscovered.