By Fred Harvey
The History Place
This was a pleasant surprise and a delightfully different World War II movie about POWs, much better than one might expect from action-oriented Bruce Willis. Thankfully, this was not an action flick about Brucie's big escape. Instead, this prisoner-of-war movie focused squarely on the human condition during wartime, examining the willingness to sacrifice for others and the issue of moral courage under pressure, or lack thereof.
Based on the novel by John Katzenbach, Hart's War, directed by Gregory Hoblit, stars Bruce Willis not as Hart, but as a Colonel named William McNamara. The main role of young Lieutenant Hart is played nicely by 24-year-old Colin Farrell.
The historical setting for the film is December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans launched a surprisingly successful offensive against American troop positions in Belgium. As the movie begins, Lieutenant Hart is captured by the Germans and is then taken away for interrogation. Hart, a Yale law student who comes from a privileged background, tries to only give his name, rank and serial number to his Nazi interrogator. But Hart is weak and can't hold up for long under the intense psychological pressure. He caves in and reveals the location of an American fuel dump to the fuel-starved Germans.
This is Hart's major failing and it haunts him. When he arrives at his assigned POW camp, fellow American officers know right away that Hart cooperated with the Germans due to the brevity of time he spent in interrogation. The American officers in the camp, led by McNamara, decide to shun Hart and place him in a barracks for enlisted men.
Hart gets along OK with the enlisted men until two new American POWs arrive. They happen to be African American fighter pilots, and are immediately made to feel unwelcome by the all-white prisoners, egged on by deeply prejudiced Sgt. Bedford, played by Cole Hauser.
One thing leads to another and eventually Sgt. Bedford winds up dead. The Germans find one of the African American pilots, Lt. Lincoln Scott, played by Terrence Howard, at the murder scene. Under normal circumstances in the camp, the Germans would simply shoot him on the spot and forego any trial. But here is where the movie changes course radically from other POW flicks. Col. McNamara asks for a trial and then assigns Lt. Hart, a second year law student in civilian life, to defend Lt. Scott. So now we have an interesting courtroom drama combined with the usual tunnel-your-way-out POW tale.
Hart's War is a slow moving film that some may find a bit boring at times. But this slow pace does allows ample time to appreciate the mindset of the various characters on screen. We understand Col. McNamara's frustration at being cooped up in the POW camp. He's a fourth generation army guy and would much rather be out in the field commanding troops in battle. We also understand the hurt and anger felt by the two African American pilots and the dilemma of unshakable racial prejudice. And finally, we understand the shame felt by young Lt. Hart at his weakness under pressure and his desire to make good for that past failing.
POW stories are always psychological dramas at heart. In its own unique way, Hart's War follows nicely in the tradition of previous POW movies, while injecting something new and a bit different for us to ponder.
Rated R for war violence and language.