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[whitespace] 'Hart's War'
Hart of the Matter Colin Farrell plays an imprisoned soldier in 'Hart's War.'

Snow Dogfaces

Bruce Willis corns up otherwise involving 'Hart's War'

By Richard von Busack

AS ONE who yearns for peace, I can't wait until World War II ends. Half of my youth took place in front of TV sets with Richard Burton droning away over the soundtrack of one wartime documentary after another: This week on the first of 15 parts of So You Want to Know About the War, Do You?, "Baku: An Oilfield Too Far": "Storm clouds were gathering over Germany ..." As war movies go, Hart's War is like Robert Mitchum's fingers in Night of the Hunter, good parts and bad parts writhing together, with an eventual triumph of the worse.

Yet a film that tries to resemble Grand Illusion instead of Saving Private Ryan deserves praise, as does Colin Farrell for his subtle playing of the title character, a pampered lieutenant imprisoned in an Augsburg stalag during the bitter winter of 1944-45. The accommodations are rough, but the camp's commandant, Col. Visser (Mark Iures), is an amusing, ironical devil--Yale, class of 1928. Iures animates that beloved old movie cliché: the sensitive German officer who drinks too much and broods in his office over his Duke Ellington records.

Racism erupts when a couple of black Tuskegee airmen arrive after a crash landing. When Bedford (Cole Hauser), an ex-East St. Louis cop and a serious Negro hater, turns up dead, the suspect is one of the airmen, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard). Though the rules have it that Scott should be executed out of hand, the sporting Visser agrees to stage a trial for the accused airman. Hart's War then turns into a courtroom drama, and the suspicious figure of Bruce Willis' Col. McNamara--the highest-ranking officer imprisoned in the camp--haunts the trial, as Jack Nicholson's character did in A Few Good Men.

The corny finale--and the phoniness of Willis' deliberate John Wayne impersonation--breaks the frame of an engrossing film. Give credit to director Gregory Hoblit for not Hollywoodizing the look of the film, which is impressively grim and tangibly cold--with soldiers weary, whiskery and tired. Hart's War illustrates why World War II soldiers used to be called "dogfaces."

At the end, however, there are too many acts of renunciation for one movie to bear. The facts of war are sugared in order to provide some spurious uplift. If only dying in a war were just a matter of sacrificing oneself for dozens of men, dying almost painlessly in front of the appreciative audience of those whose lives you'd save. But this isn't war, it's a grand finale, and the fraudulence leaves you rather angry at what you'd previously enjoyed. At the end of the film, on the soundtrack, an actor all but reads the entry in Roget's Thesaurus under "Honor," in case we missed the point.

Hart's War (R; 123 min.), directed by Gregory Hoblit, written by Billy Ray and Terry George, photographed by Alar Kivilo and starring Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell and Terrence Howard, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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