Hart's War Review
It's been a long time since we had a really good POW Camp movie. Hart's War isn't exactly what we might have wanted, and it's not really particularly good, but it's a worthy effort that comes over as a cross between The Colditz Story and A Time To Kill with nods to La Grande Illusion thrown in for good measure.
The following review contains some minor spoilers but reveals no more than is given away in the trailer.
Set in the winter of 1944/5 in occupied central Europe, the film is the story of Tommy Hart (Farrell), an administrative Lieutenant who has lived out most of the war well behind the lines. However, he finds himself directly in the firing line when a routine driving assignment sees him ambushed by the German army and flung into a makeshift prison. After five days of interrogation, which he survives only by revealing the positions of Allied fuel dumps, Hart is put on a train going to Stalag VI A in Augsberg, where he meets Colonel McNamara (Willis), an officer renowned for his bravery under torture. Hart is placed in an enlisted mens' barracks due to lack of space, and quickly gets friendly with the men, especially Staff Sgt Vic Bedford (Hauser), the fixer who can apparently get anything for anyone. But the atmosphere becomes considerably more volatile when two black officers, Archer and Scott (Howard), are also placed in the enlisted barracks. The men, many of them from the Deep South, object to this forced integration and their concerns are given voice by Bedford, who turns out to be a dyed-in-the-wool racist. Within a couple of days of their arrival, Archer has been framed for an escape attempt and summarily shot, Bedford is killed and Scott is accused his murder. Hart is given the task of defending Scott by McNamara at a court-martial devised by Visser (Iures), the Kommandant of the Camp. What he doesn't realise is that McNamara has his own agenda which doesn't involve Scott receiving a fair trial.
This is all enjoyable Boys' Own stuff and it works pretty well, but only on that level. The pretentions that the film has towards making a serious statement on racism or POW camps are best forgotten. It establishes that racism is a bad thing and that a POW camp was not a nice place to be and that's about it. There are gestures towards more complex storytelling in the character of Visser, a cultured German officer who went to law school in America and listens to proscribed American jazz in his room after lights out, but these are soon forgotten in the rush to add another genre - escape movie - into the mix. Nor am I sure that turning Hart into a traitor who must search for his redemption is especially enlightening, since this promising plot strand is junked almost as soon as it is introduced. It adds tension to the relationship between Hart and McNamara but is sidelined for a more straightforward clash of attitudes to race and then sacrificed completely as the countdown begins to the escape attempt. Another problem is the pacing of the film. It begins well and reaches a splendid climax with a rivetingly suspenseful attack by Allied bombers on the POW train. Unfortunately, this climax comes about twenty minutes into the film and Hoblitt and his screenwriters prove unable to top it, despite pouring on the soul-searching and courtroom histrionics. The actual climax is one of those ludicrous "I Am Spartacus" moments which are meant to be inspiringly moving but which tend to leave me wondering whether I'm the only person who can't watch them without giggling hysterically.
Having said that, Hart's War is quite enjoyable. Geregory Hoblit, who made the excellent Primal Fear and the underrated chiller Fallen, has a distinctive visual style which comes across particularly well in the prison camp scenes which are shot in deliberately washed out colours to emphasise the sense of cold which bores into the inhabitants. Alar Kivilo's cinmatography deserves praise here. A wizard with icy environments, he produced similarly excellent work on Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. Hoblit works very well with the actors. Colin Farrell is excellent in his second leading role and Bruce Willis is generous and surprisingly ambivalent as McNamara - a shame that his final scene has "big star heroic moment" written on it. However, the film is stolen completely by Marcel Iures as Visser. He has all the best lines in the film and he knows it, providing subtlety and a sense of complexity which is lacking elsewhere. An actor who was hithertoo unfamiliar to me, Iures has done some superb work here and as the Pope in Costa-Gavras' devastating indictment of the Vatican during the Holocaust, Amen, and I hope to see more of him soon. There are nice moments from Cole Hauser as Bedford - you might remember him in Dazed And Confused - and Terrence Howard has a lot of dignity and suppressed anger as Scott, enough to make you wish he was in a film which might have used that instead of drenching his character in sentiment.
But ultimately, this is more a good effort than an effective film in its own right. There are too many ideas suggested and then left unexplored and too many cliches from other films for Hart's War to develop an individual personality as a film. Technically, it is often highly impressive - and kudos to Rachel Portman for a score which avoids most of the usual genre stapels - but it somehow doesn't come together as you feel it should. Certainly not a bad effort though and worth a look if you like war movies, POW dramas or courtroom dramas.
This is a Special Edition of a film which didn't exactly set the box offices of the world on fire when it was released last winter. MGM have done a pretty good job on both the technical quality of the disc and the supplements and their work makes this well worth looking at.
The film is presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1 and it generally looks stunning. The use of cold colours and harsh contrast comes across very well in this transfer which has plenty of fine detail. Colours are muted but well defined and the occasional bursts of bright colour are notable, as is the contrast between the starkness of the barracks and the warmth of Visser's study. Blacks are solid and there is good shadow detail. This is as good a transfer as you would expect for recent film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is even better. A busy, highly atmospheric track, it uses the surrounds to the full, notably during the very loud action sequences of the first half. Dialogue is spatially placed and often very effectively split across the front channels. The music track sounds rich and full. Particularly good use is made of the sub-woofer during the explosions.
The extra features are limited but largely worthwhile. There are two commentaries on the disc. The first one, by producer David Foster, is sporadic but quite interesting, dealing with the historical background and some of the things that happened while the film was being made. The problem is that his comments are limited and there are long gaps between them which makes it something of a trial to sit through. The second is by Hoblit, writer Billy Ray and Bruce Willis. The three men are interesting enough although Willis seems to be in a different place altogether and only speaks briefly. Hoblit and Ray are self-critical to a fault sometimes and their frequent doubts get irksome after a while. But they are honest and they express great enthusiasm for their actors and crew.
We get 10 deleted scenes which are all presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1 format. These vary in quality but two or three are excellent and should have been kept in the film; notably "The Blackface Follies" and "The Green Men Story", both of which are revealing about the racism of the times. You can view these on their own or with a commentary from Hoblit.
There is an acceptable photo gallery and, finally, the theatrical trailer presented in letterbox 2.35:1.
There are some nicely designed animated menus and 28 chapter stops.
Hart's War is not a very good film but it's an honest and commendable effort to create a war movie which is thoughtful as well as loud and bombastic. True, the thoughts aren't especially original or interesting but at least the effort is there. The DVD is a good package, if not exactly a very special Special Edition, and is generally recommended.