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TOP 100 MOVIES in 2002!
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
When an American airman is murdered in a World War II prisoner of war camp an inexperienced former law student must defend the accused, the only black officer in the camp.
Hartís War is a mess and itís hard to know why. Everyone connected with the film has done first-rate work elsewhere: screenwriter Billy Ray went on to write the excellent Shattered Glass and Breach, director Gilbert Hoblit had already demonstrated his dramatic skills in his earlier thriller, Frequency, and Colin Farrell, Bruce Willis, and Terrence Howard head the cast. This collective talent does, in fact, produce a few moments that have the look of a serious film but the story never comes together as one dramatic piece and, when the lights come on, we wonder what weíve been watching.
The 2000 novel by John Katzenbach is set entirely in a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp for captured allied airmen. Within this barbed-wire compound a murder takes place and the accused, the only black airman in this dusty city of 10,000 men, is defended by a young law student in a court martial established and presided over by the ranking US Air Force colonel. In the movie, Colin Farrell is the law student, Bruce Wills plays the colonel, and Terrence Howard has the role of the accused airman. But that story, which is the only story in the novel, doesnít start until the movie is well underway. Although the producers chose to dramatize Katzenbachís novel, they must have felt too limited using up all their screen time in a theatrical box like those other prisoner of war films, Stalag 17 and The Great Escape. After all, thereís so much spectacle to explore in a World War II flick and didnít Saving Private Ryan do big business four years before?
And so we spend the first seventeen minutes following Lieutenant Hart, who has been shoe-horned into a behind-the-lines desk job by his influential father, as his jeep is fired on by disguised Germans, as he is captured and tortured in a castle until he gives up information, as heís given a winter coat by an enlisted
The movie has also taken seventeen minutes to introduce Bruce Willis. Now, you can play out your first act before you introduce the villain but you donít keep a star waiting in the wings. It throws us when we finally see Bruce Willis this late in the game because we canít figure out who he is supposed to be. In point of fact, the colonel has a small part in the novel, important for the story, but not a part you expect Bruce Willis to be playing and, in the end, not a part Willis or the marketing department seem to think heís playing.
With Willis cast in this heretofore-minor role, the film has to expend reel time on him, to give him his own arc, to establish his own authority through additional scenes with the German commandant, played by Marcel Iures†. As the colonelís role gets bigger and as, commensurately, does the role of the commandant, Hartís War begins to look more and more like, of all things, Hoganís Heroes: we are actually given moments with the commandant playing nostalgic records on his Victrola and scenes with secret radios in the barracks where prisoners direct behind-enemy-lines operations against the Nazis.
And then thereís that murder trial to fit in. When Terrance Howard delivers his big speech against racial injustice it feels rushed. After all, there are still the character arcs for Bruce Willis and Collin Farrell to finish.
Some of our most engaging films have come from adaptations that disregarded the original novel by eliminating characters, changing settings, and inventing new scenes in the search of a dramatic heart for the movie. Psycho and Die Hard are two memorable entertainments constructed from forgotten novels. And Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October are far more gripping as films than on Tom Clancyís page. But Hartís War would have been stronger by staying pat. Katzenbachís novel is a well-crafted legal thriller that spends its time wisely with interesting characters, casting a new light on the topic of race and justice, and building solidly towards its climax.
Sometimes less really is more.