Bruce Willis has been getting by on his squinty-face for years. For the most part, he’s done all right with it, daring evildoers to cross him, affecting tenderness, even cuddling up to cute and/or traumatized kids. But in Hart’s War, the squinty-face isn’t so effective as it has in the past. As the primary technique by which his character, Colonel William McNamara, is attempting to survive his time in a World War II POW camp, the squinty-face appears to be a means to intimidate both the U.S. soldiers he oversees and their German captors. But it’s not long before you begin to think that maybe the squinty-face (“Yipee-yi-yay, motherfucker!”) isn’t the best way to get all this done.
Still, Willis’s presence in Hart’s War does help to mitigate (for a minute, anyway) its part in the ongoing WWI-nostalgia pile-on. Willis’s ability to play an asshole — especially a sympathetic asshole — as well as anyone, makes the movie’s clunk-on-the-head moralizing slightly more bearable. Very slightly. Perhaps it’s not entirely his fault, as this moralizing comes at him (and you) from multiple directions at once. As if the Nazis aren’t enough to deal with in a POW camp, there’s also a crew of U.S. racists, incited to movie-sized action when a couple of black Tuskegee airmen, Lieutenant Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lieutenant Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon) are also taken prisoner.
Dealing with U.S. racism at this time is actually a good idea, given that so many recent WWII films either leave out this detail or insert heroic black characters as preemptive measures, not addressing the military, legal, and social systems that made their lives hell (see Pearl Harbor). But Hart’s War ends up doing what so many films about historical racism do — it turns it into a learning curve for the white characters, specifically, McNamara and one Lieutenant Hart (Colin Ferrell), the very Hart who bears the film’s metaphorically weighty title. Predictably, Hart’s war ends up being his education, his route to noble manhood. He absorbs his lesson so completely that by film’s end, he comes up with a voiceover equating his understanding of words like “honor” and “courage” and “duty” with that of a young black man living in the United States circa 1945. Uh, pretty to think so.
The whiteness of the film permeates even its surface: it opens on the snowy mountains of Belgium, where, within minutes, Hart is captured by some wearing white camouflage. Here begins Hart’s narrative dual function as victim and blank slate, lacking in insight and intuition. You see brief, not so coherent scenes where he’s brutally interrogated, then pooft, he’s loaded on a train to Stalag VI. Though the train sequence is warm-up for the central conflict between Hart and McNamara at the camp, it does establish, briefly, two things. First, the dark, unstable, wet, creepy setting, essentially a morgue on wheels, make quite clear the real horrors of this “educational” experience (for, once Hart arrives at Stalag IV, he has it relatively easy, with a bunk, food, and space to breathe). And second, it shows that Hart is weak (read: human), afraid, near death, and in need of aid from his fellow prisoners, most of whom are enlisted men.
This distinction of rank is a crucial one, as becomes immediately clear when Hart gets to Stalag VI and McNamara sends him to bunk not with the officers, but in a barracks full of enlisted men. McNamara pretends this isn’t a dis and Hart is seemingly naove enough to believe that it’s really because there’s no room in the officers’ quarters. (But if you’re paying attention, you’ll see the squinty-face that comes just as McNamara makes the assignment.) Though this might seem malicious (which it is), since Hart to this point basically harmless, you only have to wait a second or two before the movie shows you Hart’s flashback to the interrogation, a big fat ka-chunk of a clue as to McNamara’s motivation.
Even Hart catches on when the men in Barracks 27 start disrespecting him. They love their Colonel, so even if they don’t know precisely what Hart’s done wrong, they flat-out don’t care. They follow their leader’s lead. He does get a peep at their survival strategies, however. They barter with the German guards for leather boots, record players, and Lucky Strikes, hide an illegal radio in the wall, and get in and out of the barracks at night via a trap door in the latrine. They’re even rehearsing an anti-Hitler musical featuring that the Germans seem to think is just fine. So far, so Hogan’s Heroes.
Everything changes when two more officers join Hart in 27 — Scott and Archer. Here at last, the plot begins in earnest, as McNamara tells Hart he’s got to look after the “Negroes,” who are much beset by the apparently uniformly racist Americans, especially Staff Sergeant Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), who just can’t seem to contain himself when the Airmen come near him. A few plot turns later (some taking place as Hart looks on, through blocked up windows and in the dark, which means that you see what he sees — not much), Scott is on trial for murdering one of the Americans and Hart, a second-year school student at Yale Law before he joined up to defend his country, has been assigned to defend him. As you might imagine, things don’t look so good for Scott.
Yet another other term in this battle of personalities is, of course, the camp’s commandant, requisite Nasty Nazi Colonel Visser (Marcel Iures), who, when he’s not skulking in dark corners with cigarette in hand like The X Files‘s Cancer Man, is in his office drinking, reading Mark Twain, and listening to “Negro jazz” (i.e., Duke Ellington). Turns out he too has been to Yale, and so he decides to use Hart against McNamara, who clearly has too much clout around the camp. Though Visser allows e court martial to proceed, he mainly seems to be doing so in order to call out the Americans for their racist hypocrisy. At least the Nazis are front and center with their superiority, where the Americans have lynching parties rather than trials. And during the proceedings, indeed, Hart is revealed to be so incompetent that Scott tries to fire him. “I came here to kill Nazis,” he declares. If it was some crackers that I wanted to kill, I could a stayed in Macon.”
As if this direct hit isn’t enough to make his point, Scott launches into a speech while on the stand in his own defense: he’s isolated in the witness chair, and the reverse shot reveals that he’s looked on by a passel of hostile white guys, while he insists that he and his friend Archer had determined early on that they “weren’t going to spend the war being some niggers.” No, they knew they were going to have to “jump through a few hoops in this man’s army.” Which they do, and which doesn’t help them when they actually come face to face with the white men in that army, who happen to be in this prison camp.
Hart’s own face at this point looks about to break — he so feels Scott’s pain. That the movie cannot come to terms with the systemic racism that it sets up, that it falls back on attributing the horrors of those “hoops” to a few bad men and not the statutes and belief structures of a nation, it’s not really surprising, just more of the nostalgia-tripping that characterizes the Greatest Generation genre. Maybe a little more squinty-face cynicism would be in order.