|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 09 July 2002|
“Hart’s War” is one of the most compelling character-driven movies to come along in years. Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell star as American prisoners of war in a German P.O.W. camp during the final months of World War II. As Col. McNamara and Lieut. Thomas Hart, respectively, the two create onscreen presences that are larger than life. While facing the hardships of the prison camp, McNamara and Hart deal with their own private agendas as well, and each in his own way finds a means of carrying on the war — even when these methods involve battling each other.
Lieut. Hart has an important father, a U.S. congressman, who has managed to keep his son from going to the front lines of the war where American GIs are presently dropping like flies against the German war machine. Chapter 1 shows the lavish sets that were used during the filming of the movie, opening with a train chugging through the snow-covered mountainside. The hollow sounds of the train laboring over the harsh terrain echoes through the surround sound system.
Still, Hart tries to be a success in the niche his father has carved out for him. During what would typically be a Sunday run through France to take an important field officer back to his company, Hart is ambushed and captured in Chapter 2. The sudden blasts of rifle fire crashes through the speakers. The field officer is killed immediately, but Hart manages to make a run for it. However, the escape effort is doomed. The jeep crashes and the crunch spews from the center speaker(s). A moment later, Hart’s helmet lands off to the side, ringing an almost solitary note through the left main speaker. The camera pulls back to reveal Hart on a frozen field of dead American soldiers covered in fine white snow.
Chapter 3 sets the dismal tone of the rest of the movie. In many films, the urban noises or the sounds of a forest or river become the backdrop of a movie. In “Hart’s War,” those regular noises are replaced by the crash and clangor of gates and doors being slammed shut and locked, of footsteps echoing eerily through cavernous halls and rooms. All of these sound effects make the viewer feel isolated and alone as Hart is interrogated.
In Chapter 4, Hart is placed on a train bound for a P.O.W. camp. Again, the backdrop of noise is sprinkled with the train doors slamming. The photography is starkly beautiful, revealing snow-covered vistas that are bleak and unforgiving.
An attack by American Mustang P-51s in Chapter 5 pumps up the surround sound system. Unfortunately, a layer of snow obscures the POW markings across the train and the American fighter planes don’t realize they’re delivering friendly fire to their own captured troops. Machine guns hammer through the center speaker(s), then bleed off through the left and right mains as the planes pass over, echoing through the rear speakers. Bombs drop and detonate with thunderous crashes that explode through the subwoofer.
Arriving at the prison camp in Chapter 6, Hart watches as German Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures) orders the execution of two Russian prisoners. This stark action introduces the fact that Hart’s life isn’t worth much, as well as beginning the game of psychological chess between Col. McNamara, head of the captured Allied forces, and Visser.
McNamara interrogates Hart in Chapter 7, reminding the young lieutenant of the interrogation by German officers that he only recently underwent. When McNamara is finished, he assigns Hart to a billet with the enlisted men, something that should not happen. McNamara says the officers’ barracks are too crowded to accept another person. While undergoing the interrogation and being effectively ostracized from the officers, Hart remembers how he gave in to the torture he was undergoing and gave the Germans the information they needed in order to manage a stunning victory against the Allied forces. In truth, Hart is responsible for the capture of many of the men in the camp with him.
Chapter 9 introduces a further wrinkle in the events unwinding in the movie. Near the prison camp, a factory sits on a hill. Allied Intelligence has identified the factory as a shoe manufacturing plant, but in reality the place is being used to build bombs with slave labor for the German war effort. The arrival of two black fliers who outrank many of their white compatriots as P.O.W.s adds to the powder keg shaping up inside the camp. Few of the prisoners want to share quarters with black men.
McNamara chooses to put the black aviators in Hart’s barracks, making the building a repository for unwanted American officers and soon a violent argument breaks out. In Chapter 11, the jangle of horses’ gear as a wagon trundles across the screen echoes through the surround sound system, and the blasts of the lone rifle shots rips through the subwoofer.
In Chapter 12, one of the aviators is apparently framed by racist fellow P.O.W. Bedford (Cole Hauser) and summarily executed by Visser’s men. The surviving flier, Lieut. Lincoln Scott (Terence Howard), swears that he is going to kill Bedford.
Chapter 14 brings one of the most stunning surround sound feats in the movie as a pair of Mustang P-51s swoops down on the camp. The growl of the straining engines, the yammer of the machine guns and the blistering detonations of the bombs rock the house. The thunder buffets the audience with a purely physical force and assaults the auditory system. The special effects people rolled out the red carpet on this sequence, and it comes across with undeniable brutality.
Chapter 16 brings about the most crucial turning point of the movie. Sergeant Bedford turns up dead and everyone suspects Scott of the killing him. McNamara insists on a military trial, which Visser ultimately agrees to, then appoints Hart as Scott’s defense counsel.
From this point on, “Hart’s War” becomes as much legal thriller as it is psychological suspense and military action. The trial of Lieut. Scott pulls in the attention of the German guards, as well as Col. Visser. The movie is extravagantly plotted, turning around every advance that Hart achieves to use against him. Col. Visser becomes the devil’s advocate, content for the moment to wage his war against McNamara through Hart.
As move and counter-move take place, the constant clangor of the gates and doors shutting, of solitary footsteps echoing through the night or nearly empty rooms and hallways become a canvas of hopelessness and desperation.
The extras on the DVD package are lean, but the commentary by Willis, Hoblit, Ray, and Foster are all good to hear and are educational, especially by someone wanting to break into the movie business. The deleted scenes add a little extra depth to the overall story, but generally are self-revealing in why they were taken out.
“Hart’s War” is an excellent movie, a real grabber that takes the audience by the throat and not let go. Farrell turns in a credible performance as coward and hero that creates a sympathetic interface with the audience, and Willis appears to have been born to play Col. McNamara, man of honor. Rent the movie for an evening of solid entertainment, or buy the DVD to add to a collection of Willis’ best or the growing works of Farrell.