In a film that chooses the ironic setting of a Nazi prison camp to examine racism in the American military, none of the characters are black or white, and in the tradition of The Shawshank Redemption there is more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. Unfortunately, while Hart's War is extremely well made, various small plot holes and contrivances mean that ultimately it fails to ring true--a problem exacerbated by an over-earnest tendency to preach in key scenes. Nevertheless, Willis gives one of his best, most understated performances and Farrell, who went straight from this to Minority Report, delivers a truly star-making turn.
On the DVD: Hart's War comes to DVD with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that's fine for a dialogue-driven film, while the anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 transfer is virtually flawless. Ten deleted scenes are presented with the same excellent picture quality and optional commentary by director Gregory Hoblit. There is a four-part photo gallery, the deceptive theatrical trailer and two commentaries. Producer David Foster offers some interesting information, but also a lot of generalities and silence. Bruce Willis contributes virtually nothing, but Hoblit and writer Billy Ray engage in a frank discussion of many of the flaws in the film and the problems they never solved. The wartime history they recount and the cuts they made suggest that a better film was sacrificed to tell a commercial story in two hours. --Gary S. Dalkin
It will suprrise a lot of viewers that Bruce Willis is not the title character in "Hart's War." Willis plays Col. William McNamara, commanding officer of the American Troops at German Stalag VI A. Colin Farrell is Lt. Thomas Hart and who he is and how he came to be at this place is one of the first major pieces in the puzzle of what is happening in this film. But then a pair of black Air Corps pilots, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lt. Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon) enter the camp to a hostile reception from their fellow Americans. Meanwhile, the camp's Russian prisoners are doing forced labor at a bomb factory that the Allies think only makes shoes.
What we know about World War II films set in P.O.W. camps is that there is supposed to be an escape (e.g., "The Great Escape," "Von Ryan's Express"). What we do not expect is a court martial, but that becomes the event that starts to bring all the sub-plots together in this film (unless, of course, you made the mistake of watching that trailer). However, having created some momentum towards the conclusion it has carefully constructed, the film throws it away at the end, and not to some greater good. If this had happened after I had seen the trailer I would have been motivated to really trash this film because it would have been the proverbial adding insult to injury.
Willis's face was used to sell this film but Col. McNamara is really a substantial supporting role. This is primarily Colin Farrell's film and he has as much conflict with the characters of Lt. Scott and the Nazi commandant Col. Visser (Marcel Iures) as he does McNamara. I can not speak to John Katzenbach's novel, beyond the disparaging comments directed at it by Stephen King in his book on writing, but the screenplay by Billy Ray and Terry George certainly wants to comment on racism. But the points that are made are more from the perspective of the black pilots and the Nazi commandant than the bigoted white soldiers.
Captured and sent to a POW camp, Lt Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell) is the son of an American congressman who fully expected to spend "his war" behind a desk at headquarters. Ambushed whilst driving a fellow officer back towards the front he is captured and interrogated and final packed aboard a train crammed with hundreds of other POWs. On arriving at the camp he is welcomed by Col McNamara (Bruce Willis), the highest ranking prisoner and therefore in charge of the POWs. McNamara all but interrogates Hart on how he was captured and subsequently questioned and dissatisfied with the answers, assigns him to a bunk in with the non commissioned officers and other men. Days later two American pilots are also sent to the camp, nothing that unusual except that these two flyers are black and in a seeming act of racism by McNamara, they are also sent to live in Hart's hut. Subjected to general insubordination and hurtful racist abuse, it is still something of a shock when one of the pilots is "set up" on a charge or possession of a potential weapon and summarily executed by the German guards. When the supposed perpetrator of the "set up" is found murdered and the other pilot found crouched over his body, instant assumptions are made and a court martial is organised to try the pilot for murder.
There's plenty more twists and turns in store and all isn't what it seems as many of the characters have secret agendas that their actions do not give away.
As I say, the film does work on a number of different levels. On one level it is a really good straight forward war film, authentic and accurate but also shot with feeling and genuine sensitivity. The scene when Hart crashes his jeep and finds himself in a shallow grave along with other dead soldiers who have been there days is extremely moving and more than shows the futility of war. It works on the level of the intrigue and plot of a court room drama, as Hart is assigned to defend the accused Lt Scott even though he is not qualified as a lawyer. And it also works on the level of a good piece of social comment, Lt Scott's speech as he rails against the oppression and hate of his own side is quite amazing.
There are some great performances too, Colin Farrell is very well cast as the sensitive and caring Hart and there's a great turn from Terrance Howard as the accused Lt Scott. Credit also to Bruce Willis, not so much for his performance, but for not stealing the limelight and letting the more minor roles shine through. Superb turn also from Marcel Iures as the German camp Commandant.
The film is slightly spoilt by the huge slice of American Patriotism Pie Pap at the end whilst really wasn't necessary, but that aside this is an excellent and intelligent War drama.
The ostensible leading role of this film is played by Bruce Willis as Colonel William McNamara, the ranking American officer in a German stalag for Allied prisoners towards the end of WWII. However, the primary character is arguably Lt. Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), recently captured and interrogated before being deposited in the prison. Under relatively mild coercion by his Wehrmacht captors, Hart had pinpointed a crucial U.S. Army supply dump that was subsequently captured by the Germans during the 1944 Ardennes offensive, so Tommy's self-esteem is at low ebb. In any case, on the basis of Hart's two years of law school, McNamara assigns him to defend Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terence Howard), a Negro fighter pilot recently arrived in the camp and now to be courtmartialed for the murder of a fellow POW, the racist Staff Sgt. Bedford (Cole Hauser).
HART'S WAR the movie is part murder mystery and part courtroom drama. What it definitely isn't, as otherwise implied by its pre-release previews, is a Bruce Willis action flick. Perhaps that's why the film swiftly disappeared from the Big Screen - it was a bit more intelligent than the trailer-targeted audiences could bear.
While Willis plays second fiddle to Farrell, the most intriguing character is that of the German camp commandant, Col. Visser (Marcel Iures), a world-wise veteran wounded in the Great War now engaged in a battle of wills with the no-nonsense West Pointer McNamara. Is the help in case preparation Visser gives young Hart simply because both attended the same American university, or does it stem from a more hidden agenda? And what are those Russian POWs up to at that shoe factory next door? Also effective is Terrence Howard as Scott. At one point in the trial, he describes the freedoms German POWs, who were interned in the Deep South, enjoyed that were denied to the uniformed Tuskegee airmen in training, such as sitting in the front row of theaters or eating at certain diners. His speech is a pointed reminder of the virulent racism that once characterized America's military forces until only relatively recently.
I enjoyed HART'S WAR the movie because it was a reasonably faithful adaptation of the excellent novel, and all the characters were well-played, particularly the fascinating Visser.
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