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Hart’s War, starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, is a WWII movie with a difference. Hal Hayes probes beneath the surface of life in Stalag Luft III.

For novelist John Katzenbach, it was a way of paying tribute to his father, Nicholas. If the name sounds familiar, it is because Nicholas Katzenbach was a major political figure during the 60s, serving as US Attorney General during the Johnson administration. Twenty years earlier, however, he had undergone an altogether different experience which had decisively shaped the rest of his life: he had been taken prisoner by the Germans and spent the remainder of the war in Stalag Luft III.

“As my father grew older,” recalls John, “I realised we had never really spoken about his POW ordeal, so I began asking questions about that period in his life. As a writer and storyteller, I started to see that some of the things he told me could be developed into an interesting and thrilling suspense story - a mystery. It wasn’t long before I sat down and wrote the opening lines of Hart’s War.”

"honour, loyalty and truth"

What resulted from this was not your average prison camp story. Instead of focusing on heroic escape attempts or tales of torture and oppression, Katzenbach’s novel - and the movie starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell that is based on it - developed into a tense courtroom drama which deals, in a direct, accessible way, with such issues as honour, loyalty and truth. And the racism which continued to bedevil the US forces even in time of war.

Hart’s War is set during the final days of World War II, when the frantic Allied push through northern France and Belgium - the Battle of the Bulge - lead to endless confusion about where the front line lay and, as a result, the capture of US troops in unprecedented numbers.

Lieutenant Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell) is captured in just such a way - a jarring, shocking scene which sees him end up in a ditch full of corpses. Like Nicholas Katzenbach, Hart is a young law student attached to headquarters, and he is driving a senior officer on what should have been a routine mission. Suddenly, however, he finds himself surrounded by Germans. Thrown naked into a cold, dark cell, he is repeatedly interrogated, then eventually shipped off to a POW camp near Augsburg in southern Germany (the film was actually shot a little further to the north and east, outside the Czech capital of Prague).

In the camp, Hart finds himself cold-shouldered by the senior American officer, a third-generation West Pointer called Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis), for reasons that eventually become humiliatingly clear to the young prisoner. Assigned to the hut run by Staff Sergeant Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), who has created a power-base for himself within the camp in the same way that peace-time prisoners build mini-empires in jail, Hart soon finds himself also sharing his living quarters with two officers from the US Air Force’s only all-black squadron: Lieutenants Scott (Terrence Howard) and Archer (Vicellous Shannon). Bedford and the other enlisted men - many of them, like Bedford himself, from the South - treat the newcomers with hostility and contempt, and Hart’s interventions make little difference. This, after all, is 1944, and the ‘N’ word was very much a part of the everyday vocabulary.

Eventually, however, things go way beyond this. Archer is framed on a charge of possessing a weapon and shot by the Germans. Then, when Bedford is found dead, Scott is accused of his murder. With an agenda of his own, McNamara persuades the camp commandant (a career-making performance by Romanian actor Marcel Iures, recently also seen in another war-time drama: director Costa-Gavras’ controversial Amen) that there must be a court martial. And, again for reasons of his own, McNamara orders Hart to serve as counsel for the defence. It is that trial - and the events happening in parallel with it - that provide Hart’s War with its climax.

Early chapters of Katzenbach’s novel reached producers David Ladd and David Foster separately, and each separately started talking to MGM about the project. It was the studio’s head of production, Michael Nathanson, who brought the two together. Writers Jeb Stuart and Terry George did early drafts, with the final script being written by Billy Ray, who has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s hottest young writers.

"preserving the novel’s spirit and integrity"

“The challenge in development was blending all the book’s marvellous issues and suspense into one cohesive piece,” says Ladd. “We needed to condense a large, detailed and rich narrative into a two-hour movie while preserving the novel’s spirit and integrity.”

Ray, who is a student of military history, had his own reasons for being excited about the project. “It was an opportunity to write an open love letter to the men who served and suffered during WWII - a cinematic tip of the hat,” he says. “I belong to the first generation of American men who were never called to serve, and I’ve always felt grateful, yet guilt-ridden, about it.”

The final piece in the development puzzle came with the hiring of director Gregory Hoblit, whose early career directing episodes of ultra-realistic TV shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue added an extra dimension to what would become Hart’s War.

“I’ve always wanted to do a movie about WWII and was drawn to this one because it addresses political and social issues that are as pertinent today as they were then,” says Hoblit. “Hart’s War illuminates fascinating aspects of the military and of WWII captivity that a lot of people are probably not aware of. Certainly this film has lots of impressive bells and whistles – aeroplanes and explosions and stunts – but, at its core, it’s an intimate story of men interacting under duress. That’s the most enjoyable thing for me as a director – working with great words and great actors.”

All involved agreed with Nathanson that Bruce Willis would be ideal for the role of McNamara, so the script went out to Arnold Rifkin, the star’s producing partner in Cheyenne Enterprises, who “fell in love” with the material. Willis agreed.

“I’m incredibly grateful,” says Hoblit, “because he’s so right for the role. Bruce is a very good actor with a strong sense of leadership. That’s something you can’t fully ‘act’: you have to have it. He’s matured into someone who commands respect and can wear the uniform. Bruce just has the right bearing to be McNamara.”

Colin Farrell, who plays the title character, meanwhile, proved an equally obvious choice, having just come off Joel Schumacher’s low-budget Vietnam movie, Tigerland. He was the right age for the part, and he had the intensity - and obstinacy - needed for the role of Hart.

“Bruce brings a real intensity to the set, both as an actor and because of who he is,” says Ladd. “Colin, as the new kid on the block, had to step into that and grow from it, in terms of his acting and his character. It’s a case of life imitating art. His journey happens on the set and on the screen, and it’s fascinating to watch.”

"The heroes didn’t come home"

And behind it all lies a coming-of-age story a million miles removed from what is usually meant by that phrase. “I’ve always believed that the war robbed me of my youth but gave me my manhood,” declares Hal Cook, who was actually imprisoned in Stalag Luft III and consulted with the film-makers on life in the camp. “I’m just a survivor. The heroes didn’t come home.”

Published May 30, 2002

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