Hart’s War: Hoblit WWII Drama, Starring Colin Farrell

Nationality, politics and race clash in an intriguing and unexpected manner in Hart’s War, Gregory Hoblit’s old-fashioned but extremely deftly directed and acted prison drama set toward the end of the Second World War.

Though Bruce Willis gets star billing, and his name and face feature prominently in the trailer and poster, the film, as its title, belongs to Colin Farrell, the handsome and gifted Irish actor who three years ago made a splash in the Vietnam war drama, Tigerland, but has not had a good role since. Our times may be ripe for patriotic war fare, as the success of Behind Enemy Lines, a simplistic flag-waver, and the visually awesome Black Hawk Down, recently demonstrated, but MGM release will have hard time recouping domestically the budget of its picture (rumored to be over $60 million), which is expected to have only a moderate run at the box-office.

The screenplay draws upon John Katzenbach’s well respected novel, which is loosely based on the experiences of the author’s father, Nicholas, a WWII prisoner who survived the ordeal and later served as a United States Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson.

The narrative begins as a familiar prison war melodrama a la Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17–the camp’s name is Stalag Luft III–introducing a colorful gallery of men, headed by the prison’s highest-ranking American officer, Col. William McNamara (Willis). A proud man (fourth generation military), McNamara commands his fellow inmates while keeping a sense of honor and respect alive in a place where tactics for survival are far more important than those values.

McNamara’s interaction with German Col. Visser (terrific Rumanian actor Marcel Iures) is cordial yet formal, benefiting from a seemingly mutual respect for equal rank among enemies. Well-educated (a graduate of Yale University), Visser is a refined man who makes literary reference to Mark Twain and American Jazz. Having lost his son in a battle, Visser is not only a hurt officer, but one who quickly realizes that the Germans are going to be defeated.

Hart’s War, unlike most American prison actioners bears resemblance to Renoir’s seminal 1937 Grand Illusion, an ostensibly WWI prison escape story, but one better known for offering a complex portrait of the demise of the European aristocracy. Subtly analyzing the class relationships among French prisoners and their German captors, Renoir shows that the urbane French officer has more in common with the German commander (Erich von Stroheim) due to their shared class backgrounds than with their compatriots from the lower strata.

Two unexpected arrivals at the camp upset its modus vivendi, throwing the place entirely out of equilibrium. The first is by Lt. Tommy Hart (Farrell), who’s captured by the Nazis, tortured, and then sent to prison in December 1944, just months before the War ended. The son of a Senator, and partially educated at Yale Law School, Hart is the closest to serving as the film’s moral conscience. This links him to the honorable Visser, but places him in conflict with McNamara, who disregards Hart’s status and assigns him to the enlisted men’s barrack.

The second, more crucial appearance is that of two black officers of the 333rd Flying Corps, Lincoln Scott (Howard) and Lamar Archer (Shannon), who are greeted with such racist remarks as “If we got niggers flying for us, we’re gonna lose the war.” This being the 1940s, racial tensions and slurs follow by the narrow-minded white soldiers, threatening to tear the camp apart, and eventually leading to the execution of Archer by the Nazis, the murder of a white soldier, and the trial of Scott, who becomes prime suspect.

Hints are planted early on, suggesting that McNamara, who never relinquished his duty as a solider, is silently planning, waiting for his moment to strike back at the enemy, represented by Visser’s dangerous, ever-watchful eyes. McNamara orchestrates a cunning scheme to escape and destroy a nearby ammunition plant, while keeping the Germans distracted (and even amused) by the internal conflicts within the American side. Enlisting the unwitting help of the young, still naive Hart, McNamara uses a hero’s resolve to carry out his mission.

In bringing Hart’s War to life, Hoblit views the camp as much a character as a physical setting (a whole camp was built in the Czech community of Milovice). Cold, confining, and austere, the POW camp is a forbidding place, were the rules are subject to the whim of one man, Col. Visser. Hence, when reproached by McNamara for violating the Geneva Convention, the German’s cynical response is icy, “look around you, this is not Geneva.”

With few notable exceptions, most American prison dramas (including Stalag 17 and the TV series it inspired) centered on the internal life of the camp, its group dynamics, often relegating the German (or Japanese) commanders to cardboard stereotypes. It’s to the credit of scenarists Billy Ray and Terry George, who also scripted the superb father-son political melodrama, In the Name of the Father, that Hart’s War stands out not only in the respect that it shows for Visser, but in according him (and the other figures) a fully-developed character with virtues and vices. The one-to-one interactions between McNamara and Visser and Hart and Visser lend the film a depth of feeling, accentuated by Iures’ eloquent performance.

The court martial, which occupies the second half, turns Hart’s War into a conventional court melodrama, with revelations (not all of which are exciting or credible), patriotic speeches and ethnic counter-speeches. Viewers familiar with military tribunals will be able to detect similarities with Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story, also about racism and double standards in the military, as well as Bob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, in which Tom Cruise’s character, like Hart, was an inexperienced Harvard Law School grad.

These sequences reduce Hart’s War to a static, familiar expose propagating the kind of outdated noble liberalism, more befitting the zeitgeist of American society in the 1950s and 1960s, when Sidney Poitier played the “noble black,” than to the present. That said, ultimately, Hart’s War emerges as a tribute to the most cherished symbols of the American way of life, forcing soldiers to weigh the value of their individual lives against the welfare of a larger collective, the military–and the whole country.

Willis brings his customary steely intensity and harshness to McNamara, which is a variation of parts he has played well before, though his loyal fans, motivated to see the film by the trailer (which positions Hart’s War as an actioner), may be disappointed by the film’s intimate scale and the fact that Willis plays a co-starring role.

The film belongs to Farrell, who, with some luck, will become a major star. In the gritty Vietnam drama, Tigerland, Farrell delivered a mesmerizing performance in a flashy role, as an insolent army recruit, very much in the tradition of James Dean’s or Montgomery Clift’s early, rebellious roles. Though like Tigerland, Hart’s War is a coming-of-age story, it offers Farrell a more subtle and challenging role, for which he possesses the right combination of youthfulness and maturity; the performance benefits from Farrell being at the exact age, 24, that his character was in 1944.

Hart’s War may not be the most commercial efforts of Hoblit (who previously made the thriller Primal Fear), but it’s certainly one of his best-directed films, showing a remarkable attention to detail and tight supervision of all the technical values, prominent among which are Altar Kivilio’ gorgeous imagery, Rachel Portman’s subtle score, and David Rosenbloom’s sharp editing.