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 Hoblits Harts 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. Harts War isnt the artistic achievement that some of those other movies arethe molehill doesnt erupt into a mountain in this casebut its 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 senators 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 cant 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 mens barracks far from the officers hut. McNamaras clouded gaze, which keeps us guessing about his motives throughout the movie, is the films central image, even though Willis doesnt always look like he knows what McNamara is thinkingat 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 dont want him to share. And things dont 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. Harts gradual untangling of the double mysterywhy his fellow Americans are acting so oddly, and why the bigot was killedmakes 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 Harts War is as single-minded as its monotonous grayish-blue palette. (The movies one concession to visual beauty comes in a luminous nighttime view of the camp, when the warmly lit huts windows look as if theyre crowded with jack-o-lanterns.) Where Jean Renoir and John Sturges crowded their canvas with as many vivid faces as possible, Harts War confines itself to a handful of easily delineated characters: the saturnine C.O., the sneering bigot, the fresh-faced law student who hasnt the time to properly prepare his case. The one exception is the camps 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 hes stepped out of photographs from the era, and hes stripped his performance of the Brandoesque showiness that made Denzel Washingtons 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 whove populated our movies since To Kill a Mockingbirds Tom Robinson, and his picture of suffering nobility looks especially stale after that intriguing opening.
Harts War has so many tangled skeins of plottorture, racism, murder, the trial, the escape planthat it cant 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 were surprised to learn that whats at stake in Harts War are those calcified concepts duty and honorbuzzwords which the characters gob in each others 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. Wheres the believable self-serving cowardwheres King Rat?when you really need him?
This isnt to say that Harts War has nothing to be proud of. Above all, its determinedly human in its scope, careful to sublimate its actionincluding an aerial dogfight that turns into a sudden calamity on the groundto 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 Commandants comfortably appointed hut. And in the current overbearing political climate, its gratifying to report that the film is free of jingoism and bombast. Its only problem is that its more conscientious than it is truly stirring. Its sincere, but in a safe way.
– Tom Block