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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002
When men were men, surrounded by men
By KAORI SHOJI
Hollywood has long been described as a "boys' club," but that's gradually being eroded with the steady increase of women studio executives and filmmakers. So every once in a while, boys will retrench to form a little private club, free from women and women's concerns. It's called an all-boys movie. No actresses, few or no mention of women in the dialogue, not even a glimpse of a skirt. "Glengarry Glen Ross" was one. "Twelve Angry Men" was another. And now "Hart's War" (released in Japan as "Justice") joins the ranks of boys' club movies, a World War II tale of American POWs and their German captors.
All we ever see are men. Rows and rows of men who don't even talk about their mothers. The conversation is just about fathers, honor, pride, duty. And you know, it's kind of refreshing. Women so often ruin a war movie. As soon as a woman enters a war picture, the wrong chemicals start bouncing around and the flavor of the story changes. (Witness what Kate Beckinsale did to "Pearl Harbor.") With "Hart's War," the flavor is the same start to finish, which is to say the story tastes like nails, as befits a war movie.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit ("Frequency"), "Hart's War" values drama over body count: sweaty, smoky, nitty-gritty male drama. The story kicks off with the young Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell), who had never been in combat, assigned to deliver Champagne to a general on the Belgian front lines for New Year's. On the way, he's ambushed by Nazis masquerading as Allies and captured.
After a week in the hands of a German interrogator, Hart is herded into a cattle train along with thousands of Allied prisoners. This first segment sets the tone for the rest of the film: The train is bombed by Allied planes, the prisoners all pour out onto the snow and scramble to form the letters POW so that the planes stop firing. The one soldier who tears through a window, unlatches the train doors and enables everyone to get out sacrifices his life in doing so. Hart tries to revive him, but in vain. Another foot soldier comes over and tells Hart in a matter-of-fact tone to take the dead soldier's boots. Hart's own had been confiscated by the Germans and his feet are on the verge of gangrene. "Take them, Lieutenant," he urges the reluctant Hart. "They're no use to him now." Hart is devastated.
With the train bombed, the prisoners are forced to walk to their prison camp, marching single file in the snow for a week. Upon arrival, the first thing they witness is an execution of Russians who had tried to escape. Hart, who has been groomed for the military in the luxury of his senator father's household, is hit with one wartime reality after another and feels his sanity shaken. Then he's called in to meet the charismatic Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis).
McNamara seems to take an immediate dislike to Hart and orders him to the privates' bunk, depriving him of his officer's rights to better quarters.
Rebellious but also curious about the mysterious McNamara, Hart decides to keep an eye on him. Diverting him from this activity however, are two newcomers to the camp: black air force pilots ranked as officers but shepherded into Hart's bunks. This causes animosity between the pilots and the racist foot soldier Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser). So when Bedford turns up strangled, all fingers point to pilot Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard). McNamara demands a court martial and appoints Hart to be Scott's defending attorney.
Though the film loses momentum during the trial proceedings (we've all seen too many of them), it picks up again in the last 20 minutes, preparing us for the harrowing finale.
Farrell is excellent as the young and well-bred Hart, his picture-perfect looks offsetting his naivete and enthusiasm to do the right thing. No doubt this movie will launch him to stardom and love stories with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow (groan).
Even more interesting to watch are the older veterans, Willis and Marcel Iures, who plays the German commander Visser. In spite of being sworn enemies and locking horns on every occasion, it's obvious that these two understand each other as Hart can never hope to do with McNamara. The chemistry of their relationship borders on a strange, brotherly love, and the scene where they face off in Visser's office crackles with genuine tension.
It's probably roles like these that actors will wait for and work toward getting, recalling something Gerard Depardieu once said: "When one is older, one wants to be in a serious movie with men. One simply does not want to do any more love scenes."
OK, so now I can see that boys-only movies can and do work. So allow me to hope for more girls' club movies. Girls only, no males, not even any mention of them in the dialogue. Just talk about stuff like pride, honor, duty, courage. And the girls all looking gorgeous in the bargain. Let me know if you hear of anything.