'Hart's War': Been There, Fought That
Friday, February 15, 2002
The monocled, leathered and jackbooted scalawags once played by Erich von Stroheim, Otto Preminger and Werner Klemperer have nothing on SS Maj. Wilhelm Visser, the German prisoner-of-war camp kommandant in "Hart's War."
What a delight this droll fellow is. He's knowing, erudite, sophisticated, loves decadent jazz and romantic art. He's familiar with irony. The more he drinks the more amusing he becomes, the more pronounced becomes that lofted brow over an amused eye, the quicker flashes his repartee, the more provoked he is by the fabulous absurdity of it all. In the movies, he'd be played by George Sanders or James Mason or Raymond Massey.
Wait a minute. This is a movie.
Boy, is it ever a movie. SS Maj. Visser is played by a wonderful Romanian actor named Marcel Iures. He's one of the moviest things about the film but by no means the only movie thing. Though modern technology has advanced to a level where filmmakers can make you believe that's truly a Mustang and a Messerschmitt mixing it up just above the treetops and not just digital motes of electronic information floating on some cybergeek's hard drive in a mysterious bunker in a lesser zone of Los Angeles, this movie is so movie its stereotypes seem Pentium-driven.
Besides Iures' theatrical Nazi, Bruce Willis plays the isolated, stoical American commander as if he hasn't had a bowel movement, or an emotional one, in several decades. Colin Farrell is Our Kid, the new boy on the block, ever so innocent, ever so earnest, ever so self-doubting. Cole Hauser makes a loud, one-dimensional, racist Air Corps sergeant, and Terrence Howard is a noble black aviator accused of murder and tried by American rules in the barracks rooms of Stalag VIa.
That central conceit is the movie's most aching improbability, even as it struggles to accommodate too many themes. Would the Germans really allow their captives to put on a trial? I mean, really, why would they? Did it ever happen? It's one thing to do a drag show where the enlisted stiffs pretend to be Ann Sheridan and her smokin' 45s, but . . . this is like a road show production of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
In fact, the real text of "Hart's War" has nothing to do with World War II and everything to do with World War II (and other) movies: It's like a pop quiz in Hollywood history, and the answers, besides "Mockingbird" and the three alluded-to POW classics ("Grand Illusion," "Stalag 17" and the TV series "Hogan's Heroes"), would include every POW movie ever made (the Hauser character is a combination of the William Holden and Peter Graves characters in "Stalag 17"), of course the fabulous "Great Escape," and even such wartime Warner Bros. agitprop extravaganzas as "Desperate Journey," where escaping airmen Errol Flynn and Ronnie Reagan had time to blow up a munitions factory before hijacking a plane back to safe territory. A scene where a fellow is executed even as, in the background, acts of sabotage are carried out in defiance of Nazi orders is straight from the movie version of John Steinbeck's "The Moon Is Down."
The movie is actually much better in its first half than in its second, where the genre melding grows awkward. Farrell is Tommy Hart, a Yale law student assigned to a cushy staff job behind the lines. Alas, the Battle of the Bulge has broken out, and there are no lines: He's captured, discovers (incidentally) the massacre at Malmedy where the SS machine-gunned a slew of GI prisoners, is interrogated and tortured and eventually shipped off to the stalag. There, it becomes clear to commanding officer and alpha-wolf McNamara (Willis) that Hart probably gave up a tad more than name, rank and serial number. Thus, instead of going into the cushy officers' barracks, he's forced into the prole paradise of the enlisted men's.
The director, an undistinguished professional named Gregory Hoblit, has a good feel for POW culture, which may mean he spent his youth as I spent mine, watching those old flicks on the tube. And since not much is happening in the plot, each actor has enough room to get in his licks and register vividly.
Then, an hour into Lt. Hart's adventures, the actual story begins: The black aviator, Lt. Lincoln Scott, is accused of murdering the racist sergeant. Hart is tabbed by McNamara to defend Scott, though it seems a slam-dunk: Scott was discovered standing next to the body by the German guards; he had motive, he had opportunity, and he was dirty as if he'd been stalking the man through the mud. (It feels authentic that, as in many prisons, the POWs here have easily managed the elementary task of sneaking out of the buildings at night; they pretty much roam about at will.)
Of course, for Hart this is a chance at redemption, and so he takes it seriously instead of just getting with the program. His investigation eventually leads to a conspiracy. But is it an evil conspiracy or, given the context, a noble one?
As I say, everybody in "Hart's War" is at least professional; the movie grips reasonably like a solid commercial effort for close to two hours, until it more or less self-destructs in a ridiculous last few minutes when it becomes a noble sacrifice-o-rama, as three men each attempt to place themselves before a Nazi firing squad in order that justice, victory, the American way of life and melodramatic tidiness may flourish.
As Iures' elegant SS Maj. Visser might say, "How banal, these foolish Americans."