Over the years the POW film has proved to be a surprisingly fertile genre, one that might stand alone in having provided more good movies than bad ones. It’s given us such blissfully satisfying fare as The Great Escape, blistering depictions of cynicism and brutality in King Rat and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, perennial favorites Stalag 17 and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and towering above them all that Mount Everest of cinema, Grand Illusion. Gregory Hoblit’s Hart’s War plays on our familiarity with these movies, not in a geeky count-the-references way, but by letting our memory of them excuse it from retracing familiar ground. Hart’s War isn’t the artistic achievement that some of those other movies are—the molehill doesn’t erupt into a mountain in this case—but it’s a solid film, and at its best it makes you feel how hard it is to pick your way through a lot of bad choices.
It begins with the capture by German troops of Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell), a privileged senator’s son and law student, during the onset of the Battle of Bulge. Hart is a paper-shuffler, not a warrior, but when he arrives at a Stalag in the wintry German countryside, his fellow captives greet him with a tempered reserve that can’t be fully explained by his social position. Even the highest-ranking American in the camp, the inscrutable Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis), casually but firmly consigns him to an enlisted men’s barracks far from the officers’ hut. McNamara’s clouded gaze, which keeps us guessing about his motives throughout the movie, is the film’s central image, even though Willis doesn’t always look like he knows what McNamara is thinking—at points the effort of looking inscrutable reduces him to a doughy cross-eyed expression.
This opening stretch has the tingle of a Polanski film, as everyone whom Hart encounters seems to be operating on an invisible wavelength they don’t want him to share. And things don’t get any clearer when two black fliers are brought into the Stalag. Their arrival triggers a wave of hatred that races throughout the camp, and when one of the blacks is accused of killing his chief tormentor, McNamara peremptorily orders Hart to defend the man at his court-martial. Hart’s gradual untangling of the double mystery—why his fellow Americans are acting so oddly, and why the bigot was killed—makes up the heart of the movie, with the possible solutions involving a nearby munitions plant, an approaching escape effort, and the presence of an informer among the prisoners’ ranks.
The mental world of Hart’s War is as single-minded as its monotonous grayish-blue palette. (The movie’s one concession to visual beauty comes in a luminous nighttime view of the camp, when the warmly lit huts’ windows look as if they’re crowded with jack-o’-lanterns.) Where Jean Renoir and John Sturges crowded their canvas with as many vivid faces as possible, Hart’s War confines itself to a handful of easily delineated characters: the saturnine C.O., the sneering bigot, the fresh-faced law student who hasn’t the time to properly prepare his case. The one exception is the camp’s Commandant (Marcel Iures), who despite his leather trenchcoat and familiar wolfish leer, throws a kink into the proceedings by giving Hart some unexpected help in the court-martial.
But overshadowing everyone else is yet another stock figure: the unjustly accused black man. With his bullet-shaped head and thin moustache, Terrence Howard looks like he’s stepped out of photographs from the era, and he’s stripped his performance of the Brandoesque showiness that made Denzel Washington’s angry freedman a walking anachronism in Glory. Yet in a disastrous courtroom speech, Lt. Lincoln Scott joins the ranks of all the other minority Christ-figures who’ve populated our movies since To Kill a Mockingbird’s Tom Robinson, and his picture of suffering nobility looks especially stale after that intriguing opening.
Hart’s War has so many tangled skeins of plot—torture, racism, murder, the trial, the escape plan—that it can’t afford the luxury of in-depth characterization, much less the gallows humor or quotidian epiphanies that must be part of prison life everywhere. One of the scriptwriters, Terry George, has written such perceptive works as In the Name of the Father and The Boxer, so we’re surprised to learn that what’s at stake in Hart’s War are those calcified concepts “duty” and “honor”—buzzwords which the characters gob in each other’s faces like insults. These words are usually synonymous with “sacrifice,” and sure enough by the end of the picture nearly every leading player steps up to the plate and offers to bump himself off for the good of the team. Where’s the believable self-serving coward—where’s King Rat?—when you really need him?
This isn’t to say that Hart’s War has nothing to be proud of. Above all, it’s determinedly human in its scope, careful to sublimate its action—including an aerial dogfight that turns into a sudden calamity on the ground—to its drama. The squalor and cold that make up the prisoners’ lives are expressed with such relentless physicality that we can feel our toes thawing out when Hart enters the Commandant’s comfortably appointed hut. And in the current overbearing political climate, it’s gratifying to report that the film is free of jingoism and bombast. Its only problem is that it’s more conscientious than it is truly stirring. It’s sincere, but in a safe way.
– Tom Block