For a movie about American soldiers during World War II and considering its title, Gregory Hoblit’s Hart’s War is not actually a war film. There’s very little actual “war” action, at least not enough to consider the film an “action” or even an “adventure” movie. Hart’s War has elements of a murder mystery, a racial social tale, and a courtroom drama, but it’s hard to focus on one thing, mostly because the movie itself doesn’t focus on one thing, but instead tries to throw everything into the pot and hope for the best.
Hart’s War stars Colin Farrell (American Outlaws) as Lt. Tom Hart, an educated Easterner in his 2nd year of law school when he joins up to fight the war, and ends up in the safest place possible — way in the back and far from the front lines. Hart’s cushy job takes a turn for the worst when he’s ambushed by Germans on the road and is captured. Days later, Hart and hundreds of other POWs arrive at a German prison in the German countryside that is under the command of Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), the highest-ranking American officer. McNamara takes an instant dislike to Hart and sends him to bunk with non-officers. Hart takes the punishment without argument because he knows why he’s being punished.
The movie then shifts gears when two black American pilots who have been shot down arrive at the prison. Although the pilots are both officers, McNamara sends them to stay in the same non-officers barrack that Hart is residing. This causes friction, since many of the prisoners are racists, including Staff Sergeant Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), who after getting one of the black pilots killed, is himself murdered. The surviving black pilot, Lt. Scott (Terrence Howard), is accused of the murder, and then there’s a trial…
The same reason why it took so long to give the gist of Hart’s War’s main plot points is the same reason why the movie is so hard to place. Hart’s War opens as a straight war film, with Hart in Belgium behind the fighting, and then moves to the prison camp, where a railroad station is attacked by American bombers and the blood, bullets, and squibs fly. Unfortunately, the attack on the train yard and Hart’s ambush makes up most of the movie’s action, and the rest of the film ceases to be a “war movie.”
Hart’s War’s top billing goes to Bruce Willis, who turns in another fine performance as McNamara, a 4th generation West Point career military man who refuses to stop fighting the war even while in prison. McNamara butts heads with Col. Visser (Marcel Iures), his German counterpart, and the prison’s commander. The two men respect each other, but there is a very fine line between respect and the desire to kill the other. In his later years, Willis has begun to realize that he can’t play the dashing action hero anymore, so he’s become the dashing older gentleman, and his grizzled and lined face sells the role with aplomb. The man really knows how to sell his characters.
Farrell, the “It” boy of a few years ago, has the unenviable task of playing a character that isn’t entirely likeable. Not that Tom Hart is a bad guy, he’s just gutless, which explains why he’s so far from the front lines when the film started. The guy is an officer by title but he’d rather be in law school right now. Obligation and a sense of duty have made him join up, although as Hart notices himself, he’s not even sure if he knows what either word means.
Early on, it’s established that Hart gave very valuable information to the Germans during his interrogation. McNamara, the consummate officer and soldier, knows this right away after meeting Hart. You see, McNamara lasted for over a month in his interrogation, while Hart barely lasted 3 days. For the same reason that McNamara dislikes and has no respect for Hart, the audience could really care less if Hart survives the prison camp. This could be the fault of novelist John Katzenbach, whose book of the same title the movie is based on, or it could be that Farrell failed to impart upon us something about Hart’s character that we’re supposed to grapple onto as a reason to like him.
As it stands, I kept noticing Farrell’s thick eyebrows instead of paying attention to his dialogue. Tom Hart, written and played by Farrell, is just not worthwhile to get to know or like.
Hart’s War is not a war film, not an action film, or a particularly good murder mystery or even social drama for that matter. It’s a mishmash of genres saved by its big budget and Hollywood shine. Unfortunately, the movie as a whole is nothing exceptional.
Gregory Hoblit (director) / John Katzenbach, Billy Ray, Terry George (screenplay)
CAST: Colin Farrell …. Lt. Thomas W. Hart
Bruce Willis …. Col. William A. McNamara
Marcel Iures …. Col. Werner Visser
Terrence Dashon Howard …. Lt. Lincoln A. Scott