Hart's War (2002) **
Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Written by Billy Ray, Terry George, from a novel by John Katzenbach. Photography, lan Kivilo. Editing, David Rosenbloom. Production design, Lilly Kilvert. Music, Rachel Portman. Producers, Gregory Hoblit, Arnold Rifkin. Cast: Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Marcel Iures, et al. An MGM release. 128 minutes. R (violence)
The best POW film still is Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion," one of the all-time masterpieces in any genre. Then there are films which rate high, such as "Stalag 17," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Great Escape," and so on. Their historical accuracy is often in doubt (e.g. the substitution of several Americans for Brits in "The Great Escape") but those are not fatal flaws.
"Hart's War" does not make this A-list --and that's putting it mildly. It is a muddled and forced work that mixes uneasily a number of disparate themes. We meet Lieutenant Hart (Colin Farrell) during WW II 's Battle of the Bulge. That was the confrontation, in the wooded Ardennes region, between Allied and German forces (mid-December 1944 to mid-January 1945.) The Yanks were near the edge of Germany, ready to push on to Berlin. In what turned out to be the last giant battle of WW II, Hitler ordered a counter-attack, a massive and desperate affair that stalled the Allies but eventually failed. The desperate German soldiers (which included SS troops) progressed for a while, in some cases put on American uniforms, also executed captured Americans. But it was too late in the game for the Nazis.
Lieutenant Hart, who has a relatively cushy job, is ordered to take a Jeep and deliver to a General both an officer and a case of "liberated" champagne. The currying favors from one's superiors is a good, realistic touch. But then, pretend-American soldiers kill the passenger and take Hart captive. His interrogating Nazi officer, ignoring the "name, rank and serial number" rule, tortures Hart for information.
It is a good start, but it stops there. Hart and others, packed in cattle-cars, are being sent to a POW camp. Going in the opposite direction are trains with civilian prisoners. Jews perhaps? It's unclear. That's where the movie begins to raise eyebrows. More are raised when two Allied fighter planes strafe the prisoners' wagons which are clearly marked POW on their roofs. We must accept that an obliging snowstorm has covered the markings. Things get overly "colorful." The narrative gets replaced by camera techniques, acrobatics, showy editing, angles, cuts, zooms, zip pans, closeups, overhead shots.
Then, when Hart gets to the POW camp, we get no explanation why it houses both enlisted men and officers--in separate barracks--when the camps were in such categories as "stalag" (for ordinary soldiers), "oflag" (for officers), luftlag (for airmen.) Here, it would seem that Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis) may suspect (why is unclear) that Hart has given military information to his captors. Hazy stuff. In any case, Hart is sent to "lower class" barracks of low-ranking soldiers. He is not exactly welcome there.
His main hater is slimy Staff Sgt. Bedford (Cole Houser) who wheels and deals with the Germans, and has a stash of items for sale to his fellow inmates, starting with cigarettes. ( All filter-smokes. In 1944-45?) He is prejudiced against the upper classes such as Hart's. He is a despicable racist. When two black Lieutenants --Tuskegee airmen--are housed in the enlisted men's barracks, trouble follows. Also some well-meaning but gauche denunciations of racism.
This much for the plot. It goes on a phony "shot-while-trying-to escape," a mysterious murder, and the trial/court martial of an American whom Hart --who had been a second-year law student at Yale-- will represent. The film becomes also a court-room drama. There are other twists, but nothing is clear or convincing.
Colin Farrell is the ranking actor. Bruce Willis, taking an unusual back seat is relegated to playing a pan-faced Fourth Generation West Point figure. I'm sure that now and then the director said "Show expression, Bruce!" The sole interesting role is the German Camp Commandant's Col. Wisser (Marcel Iures, a Romanian)-- a relatively complex yet nonetheless stock character who has occasionally a side of "A Good German." I bet that his ambiguities came from an effort not to alienate German audiences.
The movie was made in the Czech Republic. Good production values, yet I wonder why all scenes are relentlessly dark blue-green; why the prisoners who live in pigsty barracks are given good space to do theatrics; how they are allowed Hitler caricatures plus the then popular song (from an animated cartoon) "In the Fuhrer's Face we Spit the Master Race"; why the sound is not the best; why there are no references or reactions --by the Germans-- to their so obvious losing the war. And why, at the conclusion, Hart mouths an embarrassing, cliched "patriotic" speech.