“Stalag 17” meets “A Soldier’s Story” in “Hart’s War,” a Nazi POW camp drama that’s mostly about racial prejudice in the U.S. Army. Absorbing in a low-key way but more dramatic where its secondary characters are concerned than its leads, and capped by climactic incidents that are less than entirely convincing in the cause of being ennobling, this nicely textured WWII revisit touches only tangentially upon what auds might expect in the way of escape excitement, combat and personal heroics. These factors, plus the fact that Bruce Willis plays an ambiguous role whose most important actions take place offscreen, look to translate into just moderate winter B.O. by Willis standards.
Is there something wrong with a German prison-camp movie in which the Nazi commandant is by far the most sympathetic character? Such is just about the case here, for with the exception of two black U.S. airmen who are little more than one-dimensional symbols of racial victimization in the armed services, the Yank prisoners in the screenplay by Billy Ray (“Volcano”) and Terry George (“In the Name of the Father”), based on John Katzenbach’s novel, are mostly irascible racists and shifty operators, none of them very agreeable as company.
By contrast, German Col. Werner Visser, as splendidly played by esteemed Romanian actor Marcel Iures, is the picture of world-weary sophistication. Not only is he urbane and generous by nature, he’s a major Americanophile, Yale class of ’28, a fan of Mark Twain and a connoisseur of jazz, the banned musical idiom he plays on records in his comfortably appointed quarters; “They might be the only copies in the Reich,” he points out.
No doubt aware that Germany will lose the war, overtaxed by the enormous influx of prisoners stemming from the Battle of the Bulge and mourning a son who died on the Russian front, Visser even consents to the Americans’ wish to conduct their own trial of an accused murderer. He is a member, in short, of that small group of honorable German officers of the screen perhaps best incarnated by Erich von Stroheim in “Grand Illusion,” as well as a reminder of Jean Renoir’s theme in that film that the members of the same class and rank have more in common with each other across national boundaries than do fellow citizens of different status in the same country.
If only Col. Visser had a worthy counterpart among his prisoners. The closest thing to it is the Hart of the title, Lt. Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), a fellow Yalie and U.S. senator’s son whom fate consigns to Stalag VI A at Augsburg, Germany, in December 1944. His journey there reps one of the more vivid interludes in the picture; arriving at a village railyard, the freight cars into which Hart and his fellow Allied POWs are crammed are attacked by P-51s since the “POW” signs painted across the tops of the cars are covered by snow. This bloody affair is followed by a forced march across wintery wastes, an experience that makes the stalag as welcome as the Waldorf.
The top-ranking Yank officer at the camp is Col. William McNamara (Willis), a fourth-generation West Pointer who, claiming his officers’ quarters are full, assigns Hart to bunk with enlisted men, who greet the upper-cruster with some wariness. This is nothing, however, compared to the welcome the grunts extend to Lts. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon), members of the 333rd Flying Corps of black airmen. As Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), a cop in his previous life, remarks, “If we got niggers flying for us, we must be losing the war.” It only gets worse, as Bedford and his cronies lob constant insults at the newcomers, who stick together and use their rank to try to keep their taunters at bay (“That’s Lieutenant boy,” one of the pair responds when called by a common epithet.)
In short order, Bedford plants a contraband metal spike in Archer’s bed, which is enough to get the young black man executed by the Nazis. But then Bedford’s body is discovered out in the yard, and the finger of guilt points squarely at Scott, prompting the murder trial to be overseen by McNamara.
Up to this point, McNamara has been an authoritative but peripheral figure, and even afterwards he holds his cards close to his chest; he seems none too partial toward the black aviators and has his own good reason for distrusting Hart, who remains an equivocal figure throughout in Farrell’s subdued performance. Eventually, it turns out McNamara has been holding some aces to trump his enemies, but these are oddly played in the background, which minimizes the dramatic impact of the climax as well as of Willis’s character, whose opaqueness gives the actor little to play.
Much of the latter going is given over to Scott’s trial, which has all the appearances of a charade staged for formality’s sake. Ill-equipped former law student Hart handles the defense, and it all looks pretty hopeless even after the thoughtful Col. Visser slips Hart his dog-eared copy of the U.S. Army Courts-Martial manual.
A large measure of the film’s raison d’etre — the exposure of discrimination and a double standard in the U.S. military of the time — is contained in the speeches Scott gives from the stand, and there’s potent material in them, albeit of the textbook civics-lesson variety: Protesting his innocence — “I came here to kill Nazis. If I wanted to kill crackers, I coulda stayed in Macon,” Scott insists — the defendant regales his fellow Americans and the politely interested Germans with how his father served in WWI, how he and Archer had to prove themselves repeatedly to make it through flight school and how, back in Georgia, German POWs were allowed to go to movies and eat in restaurants off-limits to blacks. The whole sorry history is strong, if didactic, historical stuff, powerfully delivered by Howard.
Ending sees all the important surviving Americans trying to outdo one another’s self-sacrificing heroics, and final narration tag is badly written in the currently fashionable mode of military ennoblement; the same writing assignment in an immediate post-war film would have possessed a more appropriate tone of ironic balance suggestive of loss on both sides.
Director Gregory Hoblit handles the physical side of the picture very well, and is helped immeasurably in this by the snowy, overcast, convincingly frigid Czech locations; Lily Kilvert’s authentically lived-in-looking prison camp; Alar Kivilo’s self-effacingly color-drained lensing; and the detailed props and costumes. Modest amount of CGI work is seamlessly incorporated into the film’s texture, and Rachel Portman’s score is appropriately brooding and unostentatious.