In harrowing early scenes in Hart's War, a young American officer is captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Stripped naked, he is thrown into a freezing cell without so much as a blanket to cover himself. Under relentless interrogation, he tries to state only his name, rank and serial number. But eventually, to stop the torture, he points out the locations of Allied fuel dumps the Nazis need to capture to sustain their advance. The young soldier survives, but for the rest of his life he must live with the knowledge that his surrender of information under torture led to the deaths of untold numbers of his comrades in arms. Hence a principle: beware the defense of torture. As our current enemies proved on Sept. 11, they believe without a moment's doubt in the justice of their cause. Half a century ago, Hitler's Nazis possessed that same fanaticism. We must never sink to their level, lest we justify and therefore abet their perfidy. From the point of view of the soldier in the field, Colin Powell understands that principle instinctively.
Hart's War would make for provocative moviegoing on this issue alone. But it has sundry other virtues as well. The physical suffering of men in combat is captured very well, as is the chaos of peril. In one scene of terrifying irony, a trainload of American POWs is attacked by U.S. Air Force fighter planes who mistake the prisoner transport for a supply train. Thus, for an interval the lives of defenseless American GIs are protected by a Nazi guard squadron trying to shoot down American aircraft.
The main narrative in Hart's War concerns other issues, however. In a crowded POW camp, bigoted white American Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser) orchestrates the execution of a black U.S. pilot. Shortly later, Bedford is found choked to death, and fellow black pilot Lincoln Scott (Terrence Dashon Howard) is accused of murdering him. POW commander Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis) appoints himself president of the court martial panel and directs torture survivor Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell) to defend Scott. The courtroom drama that follows asks the intriguing questions: is Scott guilty? Will he get a fair trial? And what, if anything, does Scott's trial have to do with the course of the war? All of these questions are answered in surprising and satisfactory ways.
I wasn't quite convinced that Stalag Commander Werner Visser (Marcel Iures) would really consent to the elaborate trial we witness. And I was certainly not convinced that Visser would abandon all his other duties to watch the proceedings the way a scientist might study an ant farm. The script's suggestion that Visser and McNamara are locked in a chess game of egos in which Scott and Hart are the pawns is a gossamer cloak for a thread-bare premise.
Still, Hart's War dances through its plot turns with the grace of unusual complexity. Bedford is a despicable racist, but he is also a brave soldier who has fought with distinction. Visser is apparently a Nazi true believer. Yet, he is a sophisticated man, educated at Yale and proud of his fondness for Mark Twain and knowledge about jazz. At a crucial juncture in the trial Hart makes an argument that will recall Atticus Finch's references to Tom Robinson's withered arm in To Kill a Mockingbird. And darn if the prosecutor doesn't have a stunning retort, one deliciously complicated by the ground rules of Hart's defense. And then, of course, comes Scott's testimony and his accounts of watching Nazi POWs ushered into Alabama diners that black officers at the Tuskeegee Air School couldn't enter. Stuff worth reminding us about.
Like bread crumbs in the stuffing, director Hoblit holds this tale together by masking the motivations of McNamara, who is not the film's central character but nonetheless its most essential. Is the colonel a closet racist? Or, echoing Lee Marvin ordering his troops to advance in The Big Red One, is McNamara a strategic military fatalist? Is he perhaps somehow trying to use Scott's trial as a method for punishing Hart? Is there a man of honor here, and if so who? Finding out makes Hart's War a greatly better than average entertainment.