At the very end of the prisoner-of- war epic, Hart’s War, one of the main characters explains in a voiceover that, after the war, another of the characters “got the chance to explain the word ‘honor’ to his son” — because he himself had grown to understand it after the events described in the movie. I wish he had taken the time to explain it to me too. Nothing too elaborate: just a few general rules arising out of the specific situation, which is otherwise far too complicated and improbable to suggest any more general lesson of its own. You’ll just have to take my word for this, as to explain its complexities and improbabilities would give away too much of a plot whose little surprises are just about all it has going for it. Suffice it to say that the familiar drama of the Second World War here gives way to the now equally familiar saga of postwar American race relations, before finally turning back into the first familiar saga with its familiar avatars of good and evil in their olive-drab and grey-black uniforms.
So much familiarity would naturally be a handicap to a director hoping to interest us in his story, but Gregory Hoblit and his brace of screenwriters — Billy Ray and Terry George — with four first names between them further Hoblit themselves by offering us no interesting character either. Bruce Willis’s taciturn Colonel McNamara (“fourth generation West Point”), Colin Farrell’s weak but likeable Lt. Tommy Hart, a senator’s son with a staff job captured by accident in the Battle of the Bulge, Terrence Howard’s noble Negro, Lt. Lincoln Scott, a Tuskegee Airman, Cole Hauser’s vicious racist (and traitor) Sgt. Vic Bedford, Marcel Iures’s world-weary, jazz-loving Nazi, Col. Werner Visser, the camp commandant — all are types rather than people. We have seen their likes a hundred times before and we shall see them again every time they are needed as counters in some such moral drama as this.
And, as if that were not enough (one, two, three strikes you’re out), the dialogue is at several points decidedly overripe. When the commandant orders a prisoner who has been found with a makeshift weapon in his bunk to be shot, Col. McNamara protests: “The Geneva convention specifically forbids summary execution.”
“Look around you, Colonel,” says Visser with an evil smile. “This is not Geneva.” Later, when McNamara insists that one of his men accused of murder be tried by his fellow prisoners, his German counterpart says: “A court martial! Like in your American movies. That should be fun. All right.”
I wonder if the writers thought this kind of thing was sardonic Nazi wit or if they were making a sly post-modern joke about how much of what we are seeing is “like in your American movies” — rather, that is, than being like in real life. Most of all like the movies is Lt. Scott’s peroration from the witness stand about the iniquity (perhaps you’ve heard about it?) of the treatment of black folks in the South, and even in the army. It’s not that one is not sympathetic; it’s that one never has the sense of how the speech belongs here. Always we hear the echo of the pitch meeting where some genius is saying: “It’s Stalag 17 meets To Kill a Mockingbird! It can’t miss!”
But it does miss. The movie simply takes for granted the now-fashionable but quite anachronistic view that the war was fought against racism. It never gives us any sense of the reality of the conflict, or of the men on either side. Instead of getting the lesson in honor we have been promised we have got yet another lecture on racial tolerance, yet another history lesson about how bad Nazis and Southern racists were. Somebody does do his duty and nobly gives up his life to save that of a comrade, but it is an isolated act unsupported by anything we have seen earlier in the movie either in the character of the person who performs it or in any more general understanding of honorable deeds. Up until that point honor seems to consist only of being nice to Negroes and not being nice to Nazis or racists. It’s a worthy precept, of course, but one that could have been learned, like Lt. Scott’s anti-racism, back in Macon, Georgia.