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HART’S WAR(director: Gregory Hoblit; screenwriters: Billy Ray/Terry George/based on the novel by John Katzenbach; cinematographer: Alar Kivilo; editor: David Rosenbloom; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Bruce Willis (Col. William A. McNamara), Colin Farrell (Lt. Thomas W. Hart), Terrence Howard (Lt. Lincoln A. Scott), Cole Hauser (Staff Sgt. Vic W. Bedford), Marcel Iures (Col. Werner Visser), Linus Roache (Capt. Peter A. Ross), Vicellous Reon Shannon (Lt. Archer), Sam Jaeger (Capt. Sisk), Rick Ravanello (Maj. Joe Clary); Runtime: 125; MGM; 2002)
“… the film becomes too preachy and obvious in its patriotic and do-gooder intentions.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A WW II PoW film featuring an all-male cast that is similar in theme to Stalag 17, but not as well presented or thought out. It’s an updated version to fit our modern times, but one that makes the soldiers of WW II seem like ignorant asses and racists. It’s a sentimental film about honor, duty, and self-sacrifice among American PoW’s in the waning days of the war. They are faced with racism, betrayal, a mean-spirited Nazi commandant, a court-martial trial, and a prison escape. The film tries to veer off course from the usual war story but safely returns to the formulaic fold by showing fighter plane attacks, heavy troop causalities during an ambush, and the usual cornball Hollywood heroics before the finale. It becomes mushy when three soldiers try to outdo each other as to who is the bigger hero, with the winner receiving the right to be executed. The Germans are all one-dimensional villains and the prisoners are made up of white racists, a naive white liberal, a gung-ho white military blueblood, and two persecuted African-Americans. The prisoners are divided into two categories–they are either true patriots or betrayers of the cause. Nevertheless, besides the formulaic plot, an attempt was made to make this into an intelligent story. But the film becomes too preachy and obvious in its patriotic and do-gooder intentions. In the end, this is a forgettable melodrama that is all over the map in what it is trying to do and all the places it lands it drops bombs that ultimately fizzle.

Thomas W. Hart (Colin Farrell) is a Yale Law School student who is now a lieutenant. He has never seen combat as he is assigned a desk job to be a military attach√© at field headquarters, a post obtained through his family pull–his father is a senator. He gets captured in the snowy Belgium woods in 1944 when his jeep overturns while driving another officer to the front, and he survives the enemy ambush. But when captured and interrogated by the Nazis, he quickly gives up fuel depot locations for a pair of shoes. When transported to a Nazi PoW’s stalag, he’s grilled by the highest-ranking American prisoner in the camp, the West Point grad and humorless militarist, Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis). The stern McNamara takes an instant dislike to Hart, figuring out that the lieutenant lied to him about not giving out info. He therefore assigns him to bunk with the enlisted men, claiming the officer’s barracks are overcrowded.

To complicate things further, two black Air Corps pilots are captured, Lt. Lincoln A. Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lt. Archer (Shannon). McNamara assigns them to Hart’s enlisted quarters, where the two are met with an unfriendly reception by many of the enlisted racist soldiers. The biggest racist there is Staff Sgt. Vic W. Bedford (Cole Hauser), a wheeler-dealer trading with the German guards, who plants a tent spike which could be used as a weapon in Archer’s bed and that causes Archer to be executed by the Germans.

Soon Bedford is found dead, and the Germans think he is killed by Scott as an act of retaliation. They want to immediately execute him but McNamara, while no protector of Scott, asks the German prison commandant, Col. Werner Visser (Iures), for an American-held court-martial trial. McNamara has his complex reasons for asking for a trial that he has already been rigged against the black defendant. Visser, as a courtesy, agrees as long as it is done in a few days. McNamara assigns Sisk, who in civilian life is a lawyer, to be the prosecutor and for Hart to be Scott’s defense lawyer.

When the trial begins, the end for any hope in this melodrama succeeding in overcoming its manipulative plot is over. When Visser tells Hart that he also attended Yale, this leaves the door open for any other contrived coincidence to suddenly pop up. And thereafter the film jettisons the racist story and its courtroom mystery story and the character story of Hart, it eventually becomes another stalag escape film in need of a superhero. But by adding so much melodrama to the escape story, the film failed to be tense or believable or clear in where its prior anger toward racism now lies. All its lessons about racism seemed as mere pap thrown together so this film would seem more important than it is. Hart who could have been the hero in the story, finding redemption through his courageous defense of Scott to make up for being squealer, is instead out trumped by McNamara’s last heroic gesture. The problem with all the contrived action coming about in the final few minutes, is that the film lost focus in what it was trying to say and never cleared up all the confusion it created. The Stalag 17 type of ending seemed misplaced. But the snowy German countryside looked beautiful, as the film’s photography gave it its most memorable accomplishment.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”