Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Starring: Colin Farrel, Marcel Iures, Bruce Willis, Terrence Dashon Howard, Cole Hauser
Parental Notes: Although “Hart’s War” isn’t particularly violent for a war film, it does have a number of disturbing images (corpses frozen in the snow, Nazi interrogation, etc) that make it unsuitable for younger teens.
“Hart’s War” is filled with intriguing characters and engaging details, but its intricate plot eventually unravels and a tacked-on ending provides neither an explanation for the mystery nor a satisfying conclusion to the story.
Lt. Tommy Hart (Farrel), the pampered son of a US Senator, has spent most of World War II working in an office. When he’s captured while chauffeuring a superior officer, it’s clear that although he sees himself as a brave American soldier, he’s not. He’s a good man, but he’s also pampered and essentially weak.
After a hellish time in interrogation and a cross-country trek, he and a large group of other POWs arrive at a camp run by Col. Wilhelm Wisser (Iures). Col. McNamara (Willis), who is the ranking US officer and thus in charge of much of the day-to-day details of the camp, sees through Hart’s brave front and shuffles him in with the enlisted men rather than quartering him with the other officers.
When two black airmen arrive – both officers – McNamara gives them the same treatment, putting them in the same enlisted quarters as Hart. Unfortunately, there are a number of bigots in that bunkhouse, the most vocal of them a fellow named Bedford (Hauser), who frames one of the new guys and gets him killed by the guards. When Bedford himself shows up dead, the other black pilot is the natural suspect. McNamara insists on a proper trial, and Wisser agrees, although he does put a time limit on the proceedings. Hart is assigned as counsel for the defense, but as the trial proceeds, he learns that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
As the film unfolds from there, we are given tantalizing glimpses into the character of each of the men involved. When Wisser tells Hart that his son is dead, and Hart expresses sympathy, Wisser reveals for a moment the heart of a weary man under his Nazi uniform. He fought in the first War, he tells Hart, and he killed his share of English and French soldiers. “They had fathers, too,” he says softly, and changes the subject.
As a character study, “Hart’s War” falls a bit short because it never entirely resolves all the questions it raises about the people it presents, but it does give us a cast of flawed, interesting men – with the exception of the two men at the center, the black pilots, who are grossly underdeveloped.
Most of the details of “Hart’s War” are excellent. Character details, uniform and setting details, details of legal proceedings, and the grit of everyday life in a POW camp are all excellent. Where “Hart’s War” collapses is in the broad and basic necessities of the plot.
Who really did kill Bedford? Although two separate characters confess and Hart gives an explanation of who he thinks did it, it’s not clear who actually did the deed. It’s apparent that the trial is a setup to distract the Nazis from an escape attempt, but it’s never explained how the setup could have been worked. Who was trading information with the guards, and why?
There are so many questions of this kind unanswered at the end that it’s hard not to feel cheated, in spite of the intellectual pleasure of the murder mystery, the trial, and the intriguing characters presented by the film. The tacked-on ending is clich