Saturday, February 1, 2014

CRACKER? HART’S WAR (2002)




                “Hart’s War” is a POW / court room hybrid.  It’s like a mash-up of “A Soldier’s Story” and “The Great Escape”.  It is based on a novel by John Katzenbach.  It was directed by George Hoblit.  It was filmed at a studio in Prague.

                Hart (Colin Ferrell) is a green staff officer who has no worries about combat because he is a Senator’s son.  Unfortunately, the Battle of the Bulge sneaks up on him (it is quieter in this movie than others) and he gets taken captive by some of those Germans-disguised-as-Americans.  Within a two minute section, the movie also manages to toss in a reference to the Malmedy Massacre.  I was surprised they didn’t throw in McAuliffe saying “Nuts!”

Instead of the usual play, why don't we stage a
murder trial to break the boredom?
                Hart is interrogated by your typical suave Nazi.  He wants to know where the fuel dumps are.  You know, like the one at the end of  “Battle of the Bulge”.  Does Hart talk?  Unsure.  He is put on a POW train which passes by a train full of Jews.  Check that reference off.  At one point a P-51 strafes the train in a scene reminiscent of the crossing the Volga scene in “Enemy at the Gates”.  There are explosions, quick cuts, and generally frenetic running about.

                When Hart arrives at Stalag VI A, he is greeted by the sight of three Russian prisoners hanging.  The German commandant Col. Visser (Marcel Iures) is evil and the opposite of Col. Klink.  The ranking American officer is Col. MacNamara (Bruce Willis) who suspects Hart ratted out the fuel dumps and it turns out he’s right.  This conveniently results in Hart being relegated to an enlisted man’s barracks so the movie can move in a new direction. The plot is roiled by the arrival of two Tuskegee Airmen.  Would you believe they are not welcomed by the white soldiers?  In particular, a loathsome cracker named Bedford (Cole Hauser) who plants a tent spike in the bunk of one of the blacks which results in his execution.  Guess what racist ends up dead with the other black named Scott (Terrence Howard) standing over him?  In between we get the CGI spectacle of a German fighter getting shot down into the camp.  Cool.  Oh, did I mention the American fighter has its tail painted red?

Hey Southerners, look who came to
our slumber party!
                McNamara insists on a court-martial for Scott because he is accused of killing an American.  This is intended as a distraction to cover an escape attempt.  Visser agrees to this because… I’m not sure.  McNamara appoints Ferrell as defense attorney because…I’m not sure.  Visser helps Hart by giving him an American court-martial manual (which he keeps on his shelf next to his copy of Mein Kampf).  He does this because… I’m not sure.

                In the trial, Scott gets called to the witness stand so he can break the fourth wall and give a speech about mistreatment of blacks which mentions the better treatment of German POWs in the American South.  I would have squirmed if I did not know all this stuff already.  The speech is not maudlin and actually works pretty well.  McNamara is put on the witness stand so Willis can do his Jack Nicholson (“A Few Good Men”) imitation.  While all this is going on McNamara is supervising a tunnel to launch a raid on a nearby munitions camp.  The trial is just a distraction.  By the way, try not to be distracted by the fact that the destruction of the munitions plant would most likely rain executions on the prisoners.  No one argues whether it’s a good idea.  The movie closes strong with intercutting between the summations in the trial and the escape.  I won’t give away any of what happens, but it is pretty powerful if implausible.
a Nazi, a Democrat, and a Republican

                “Hart’s War” is a war movie for people who do not care about war movies.  It is aimed at the generic audience.  The producers appear to have doubted whether a regular prisoner escape movie would be profitable so they added a court room drama and then threw in a Tuskegee Airmen / Red Tails subplot so the film could have some gravitas.  The fact the movie did not do well at the box office tends to show that you shouldn’t structure a war movie based on demographics.  With that said, it is not a bad movie.  It is entertaining, if you can suspend disbelief and just sit back and watch.  The acting is good.  Willis is strong and seems to have bought into the character.  Ferrell is adequate.  Visser is sufficiently malevolent.  Terrence Howard should be able to play a Tuskegee Airmen in his sleep at this point.  The characters are not one-dimensional.  The dialogue is fine. 



                The major flaws in the movie are due to aiming at a mass audience.  The themes are trite.  Redemption of Hart from being a rat.  Sacrifice for your country and men (McNamara).  Honor is more important than life (Scott).  The biggest problem is that in order to develop the themes, the script has to pile on implausibilities and unrealities.  For instance, the whole opening scene where Hart is captured is absolutely ridiculous to anyone familiar with the Battle of the Bulge.  Even small touches can be aggravating.  In the trial, Scott claims to have shot down nine German planes in thirty missions.  No Red Tail came close to that figure.  Some cool twists partly make up for the predictability of the themes.  Another balancing factor is the production values are strong.  The camp is one of the best in the subgenre.  Real effort went into it.  The tunnel is also well done and similar to that of “The Great Escape”.  However, I’m not sure if reminding people of “The Great Escape” is a good idea when your movie is much inferior.
 
                Cracker?  Unlikely.  It is not even in the upper rank of POW movies.

 

GRADE =  B-
 
 

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