World War II was America’s bright and shining war. No Hollywood alchemy was required to make it into a golden romance. It had it all: the world’s greatest super-villain of all time (the benchmark of evil that American politicians and our media measure foreign despots against) and his original axis of evil made our men who raised arms against them true heroes fighting the good fight. Even the fallout from the nuclear hell that President Harry Truman gave Hiroshima and Nagasaki couldn’t tarnish their glory.
But the metal of Hart’s War is an alloy of less gold than irony. “They’re our allies, sir ... America knows no distinctions among its allies,” Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis) proudly explains to the warden of American POW camp Stalag 6, S.S. Maj. Wilhelm Visser (Marcel Iures), as the colonel and his men salute the dangling bodies of freshly executed Russian prisoners.
But this attitude doesn’t manage to cross color lines. When Army Air Corps lieutenants Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon) — captured African-American pilots — are integrated into enlisted-men’s barracks 27, Staff Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser) protests that even “nigger officers” aren’t “fit to share the same roof with white folks.” Their Nazi guards sneeringly sympathize. They summarily execute Archer before a firing squad after finding a weapon planted in his bunk. The next day, Scott is found standing over Bedford’s dead body and Visser agrees to entertain the formality of Scott’s court-martial. McNamara appoints young Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell, Tigerland), a second-year Harvard Law School student, as the black man’s counsel.
Hart’s War begs comparison to that classic World War II POW movie, Stalag 17 (1953). The setting is the same. Both are tales of compromised men redeemed after reluctantly accepting the call of heroism. But this story escapes all of Stalag 17’s lighthearted prison-camp shtick (that led to the TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”). It also escapes most of its Hollywood dialogue and melodrama, while grimly ironizing the World War II movie by generating deep questions of race, law and politics that haven’t been exhumed since 1984’s A Soldier’s Story — and were recently glossed over in the romantic lie of Pearl Harbor (2001). Were the differences between Nazi white supremacy and American Jim Crow just matters of degree and German organization and efficiency?
In a later scene, after McNamara claims the Russians as our allies, he protests to Visser that Archer’s execution violates the Geneva Convention (not his civil rights, as federal lawmen would argue about the executions of blacks in America 20 years later). Visser smirks, amused, and retorts in true Hollywood style, “This is not Geneva.”
After decades of playing the role of our Cold War archenemies (Reagan’s “evil empire”), the Russians are our allies in the war against terrorism. Geneva Convention controversies have arisen concerning the al Qaeda “detainees” in Cuba’s Camp X-Ray. Almost 60 years later, Hart’s War seems like today’s.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.