Hart's War Review
The second world war film is still as popular today as it was throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the existence of such modern-day pieces as Saving Private Ryan and the upcoming Windtalkers should go to prove. However, the entertaining sub-genre of the prisoner of war film, as epitomised by such high-class bits of filmmaking as The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai has become something of a dodo; even a mooted remake of Escape, with Anthony Hopkins as Big X and, of all people, Bruce Willis as Virgil Hilts never came to pass, presumably on the grounds that nobody wanted to see that kind of drama any more. Thus, the failure of Hart’s War at the box office should have come as no surprise to MGM, given that it attempts to cast Willis as, loosely, the ‘Big X’ character of war films, and then surrounds him with a fairly preposterous and overblown plot, one not helped by the grievous miscasting of Colin Farrell in the central role.
For all its flaws, the film opens efficiently and excitingly. Hart (Farrell), the privileged, Yale-educated son of a US senator is lounging around Belgium in a glorified desk job when, upon volunteering to go on a routine assignment, he finds himself captured and interrogated by the Nazis; after he breaks down and gives them the information they needed, he is packed off to a POW camp, where the commanding American officer Colonel McNamara (Willis) instinctively realises that Hart has told the Nazis too much, and sends him into a hut with enlisted soldiers, including the malevolent Bedford (Hauser). Matters are complicated by the arrival of two black officers, Scott (Howard) and Archer (Shannon), given that they are greeted with racist abuse from most of their compatriots. Murder and a trial soon follow, with Hart as defending officer, but is there more to McNamara and the Nazi commandant Visser (Iures) than meets the eye?
Gregory Hoblit, the director, and the screenwriters cannot be faulted for lack of ambition. In its two-hour running time, the film attempts to combine conventionally violent battle scenes, prisoner of war drama, a courtroom thriller and another film altogether, which it would be spoiling the plot to reveal. It is obvious throughout that the film has been based on a novel (in this case, one by John Katzenbach), as this is an example of a team of filmmakers trying to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, this would like to be an intelligent and profound look at the plight of black servicemen in the US military in the Second World War, with one Oscar-bait speech towards the end from one of the characters that all but screams ‘serious moment in serious film’. The tone of the film is also a million miles away from the cheery nature of The Great Escape and other works; instead, the snowbound setting lends a grim, miserable air to the machinations of the characters. This is partially helped by a couple of strong performances from Willis, who proves that he has at last managed to mature into a serious dramatic actor, and Iures, who is marvellously serpentine as the commandant; it is impossible to tell for most of the film whether he is a ‘good German’ of the type played by Erich Von Stronheim in La Grande Illusion, or just another manipulative schemer.
Unfortunately, the film has a good deal wrong with it. Although Hoblit’s attempt to make an all-bases-covered war film is admirable, it also leads to a combination of plotlines which never fully converge in an especially satisfactory manner; although there are moments of amusingly Byzantine machination in the courtroom, the entire subplot feels like nothing so much as a distraction from the more interesting business of what, precisely, McNamara is up to. Unfortunately, by the time that it is revealed what has really happened, it is unlikely that the anti-climatic ending is going to make anyone desperately interested or excited in the events depicted. The film also loses points for employing some shockingly awful cliches; at one point, a Nazi guard actually yells ‘For you, ze var is over!’, a line that was past its best when it was being yelled at the stereotypical hero of these films in the 1960s.
The film is also all but crippled by a dreadfully wooden performance from Farrell, who fails to elicit any audience sympathy at all; instead, one’s interest lies in how Hart is going to receive his come-uppance throughout, which is hardly the emotion that the ‘hero’ of a film like this should arouse from an audience. Ed Norton was originally cast in the central part, and would undoubtedly have been far more convincing as a preppy young man forced to compromise himself; when Farrell’s character declares that he went to Yale, it’s tempting to imagine that he means the lock factory.
Ultimately, this is not the worst war film ever made, and deserves some faint praise for trying to be a little different to the current fad for pornographically graphic scenes of overblown violence. And, to be fair, it’s better in every department than We Were Soldiers, not that that’s in any way an especially difficult achievement. However, stilted speeches and dramatically turgid moments of character interaction are not the same thing as a genuinely thought-provoking script that dares to take risks and come up with something different and intellectually stimulating; although Hart’s War is not a bad film as such, it’s a very long way from being a good one, and must be counted a disappointment as a result.