THE OLD fuddy-duddies in school who wouldn't listen to your demands for relevance were right: The classics are always timely.
The most prophetic movie you can find just now isn't ''The War of the Worlds,'' or ''2001,'' or any of the many incarnations of ''Star Trek,'' a cult I could never quite get myself to join. If you want a movie that sums up our situation at home and abroad, take a look at ''Duck Soup.''
As that movie begins, Freedonia suffers from paralyzed government and deep budget problems -- sound familiar? So the wealthy, widowed Gloria Teasdale (played by the eternal comic dowager, Margaret Dumont) won't lend the state any more money unless her protege, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), gets to take over.
Firefly does, promising drastic changes in a musical inauguration number whose candor I'm still waiting for a flesh-and-blood officeholder to match: ''You think this country's bad off now? Just wait'll I get through with it!''
At his first Cabinet meeting, he puts Freedonia's finances to rights:
Firefly: Any old business?
Finance minister: About the tariff --
Firefly: Sorry, that's new business. Any other old business? Any new business?
Finance minister: Now, about the tariff --
Firefly: TOO late, that's old business already! . . .
Finance minister: I insist on discussing the tax!
Firefly: I'd rather discuss the carpet.
Finance minister: First we take up the tax!
Firefly: He's right, you gotta take up the tacks before you can take up the carpet. . . .
Firefly's style may be eccentric, but it turns him into a Teflon politician long before Teflon was invented (the movie was made in 1933). His popularity frustrates Sylvania's efforts to stir up a revolution and annex the country, until Sylvania's Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) puts Chicolini and Pinkie, his two best agents (Chico and Harpo Marx), onto Firefly's case.
The two spies make you wonder what Sylvania's worst agents are like, but you can't argue with success. Chicolini becomes Freedonia's minister of war before being exposed by accident, only to have war break out in the middle of his court-martial, complete with a big production number. (I can't hear the ''American Patrol March'' without seeing Chico and Harpo playing it on the palace guards' helmets.)
Before long, Firefly, Chicolini (still around because ''the food is better over here''), Pinkie, Firefly's secretary Bob Rowland (Zeppo Marx) and a few soldiers are trapped in Mrs. Teasdale's house and have to send somebody through the Sylvanian lines for help. What Chico does then has more to do with the Vietnam draft than with the Persian Gulf, but it's such a perfect anticipation of the snobbery, hypocrisy and influence-mongering of the Vietnam era that anybody who talks about reviving the draft, as a lot of people are doing now, should be made to watch it.
Chico gets the principals into a circle and starts choosing up sides playground-style, rattling off nonsense syllables as he points to each man in turn. But he winds up picking himself and shaking his head -- ''No, I did it-a wrong.'' He starts again, picks himself again -- ''No, dat'sa no good, too.'' He fakes a third start, points straight at Harpo and says ''You!'' And Groucho sends Harpo off with the inspiring message, ''And remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are!''
Freedonia does eventually triumph, but we shouldn't take too much comfort from the parallel. Besides its superior stupidity, Freedonia has a secret weapon that we won't: the scriptwriters.
The case for eventual war with Iraq may be a perfectly serious one, and if you accept it you also accept the idea of taking our help where we can find it. The colonels' Poland of the late Thirties wasn't the ideal ally for fastidious democrats, and Stalin's Russia was a thousand times worse, but with Hitler's Germany as the enemy we did what we had to do. But you can't look at some of the people we say we're trying to protect without thinking of the great moment when Firefly gestures melodramatically toward Mrs. Teasdale and declaims, ''And remember, we're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did!''
Mr. Landaw is a makeup editor with The Sun.