The Fourth Protocol (1987)

Peace is really not profitable.  Eisenhower in 1960 warned of a permanent war economy. Sad, we didn’t listen.   In the late 1980s with the implosion of the Soviet Union, there was supposed to be this huge “peace dividend” to our economy. With the Cold War officially over, we could reduce military spending.  To some degree, the size of the military was reduced but new weapon systems and other conflicts around the globe made the peace dividend a stillborn reality.

The Cold War produced a number of fine films depicting the tensions between the East and West, many taunt dramas, but also a few comedies.  The reunification of Germany as Soviet influence in Eastern Europe fell, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union provided material for fiction writers.

Several films in the 1980s examined this threat of peace and why it might not work.  The Package (1989) portrays the American and Soviet militaries working together to stop a disarmament treaty between their countries.

My autographed edition

The Fourth Protocol, based on the book by Frederick Forsyth, shows what happens when one of the protocols of a treaty on nuclear proliferation is violated, in this case, the fourth protocol of that treaty.  I love the book, so much that I found signed special edition for my collection.  There are differences between the book and the film, but that’s okay since the author wrote the screenplay and was a partner in the film with star Michael Caine.

“The fourth of the protocols was meant to prohibit non-conventional deliveries of nuclear weapons, i.e. by means other than being dropped from aircraft or carried on ballistic missiles. This included postal delivery or being assembled in secret, close to the target, before being detonated.” – from Wikipedia

The story takes place while the Cold War is still cold, a plan is activated by the Soviet KGB chief to violate the fourth protocol, by setting off a secret nuclear device, blaming it on the Americans, and influencing a power-shift in the Soviet governance.  Just a stroll in Gorky Park.

Michael Caine as John Preston

The Fourth Protocol is a trail of clues told from two viewpoints, the MI5 agent who stumbles onto something he doesn’t quite understand, and the Soviet agent, who lands in England to assemble and then detonate the nuclear device.  It is a twisty story as these two trails converge.

Michael Caine play John Preston, the MI5 agent who is a bit of a rogue, running his own action to catch a Defense Ministry member passing NATO secrets to the South Africans where a Soviet KGB agent is embedded.  For his insubordinate effort, Preston gets transferred to a post, out of the away as a demotion, but stumbles on the trail of something he doesn’t understand, after discovering a piece of polonium, that he learns can only be used in triggering a nuclear device.  His concerns are rejected and he’s suspended from his job, again for insubordination. Preston isn’t a very good employee.  Thankfully, a top MI6 official wants Preston to continue his work, despite the suspension by his own department.

Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan)

Meanwhile, KGB officer Major Valeri Petrofsky, is given a top-secret mission by the KGB chief to go undercover in England, as James Edward Ross.  This mission is so secret that everyone connected with it suddently disappears.  A Soviet general, the deputy KGB chief, is alerted to something unusual going on and begins his own inquiry, as Petrofsky lands in England under an alias and sets up house next to a NATO air base.  The deputy KGB chief finds his own trail of secret activity pointing towards England.

Petrofsky begins meeting couriers of various bomb components. His efforts are complicated by a man he must kill who observed him meeting a courier, and the attraction by a neighbor’s wife. Petrofsky might be a trained killer but he has human vulnerabilities. Later, he is joined by KGB agent Irina Vassilievna who assists in assembling the device.

The deputy KGB chief is faces a decision.  If the bomb blows up the Americans will be blamed and NATO will be destroyed, if Petrofsky is caught with the bomb, the Soviets will be blamed.  Tough choice. There might be a third option.

Preston has picked up a lead with the arrival of a foreign traveler known to MI5, a radio operator, likely tied to the operation.  This gives his investigation a solid step forward as they set up a stakeout, which they believe is where the radio transmitter is.  Then Ross shows up. Preston decides to follow Ross when he leaves.  Meanwhile, the KGB boss gets word the device is ready for detention, he shreds the file on Ross.

There happen to be a large-scale anti-nuke protest planned at the NATO base. Coincidence?

Preston loses Ross in transit, but gets back on the trail, eventually finding him at his apartment next to the NATO base.  Preston and company set up survelliance.



Preston and Petrofsky are the foot soliders, flying far below the political maneuverings of their respective governments.  The fun of films like The Fourth Protocol is discovering what you don’t know, clues that have other meanings.  While Preston and Petrofsky are on their missions, the game’s stakes are being raised by those far above their pay grades.

Critics complained the film was a low-energy and not very original story.  The ending was rather anti-climatic, but did not lack in realism.  Life is often not completely satisfying. As a film, I found it quite engaging, with a fine supporting cast and a jigsaw story.  Caine’s character does not require him to do much, he’s really more of a chess piece in the story.  But a very good one.

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