Ever since classic prisoner of war dramas were parodied by plasticine poultry in "Chicken Run", it's been hard to take their narrative clichés seriously. Nevertheless, "Hart's War" attempts to reinvigorate the genre by blending it with courtroom drama, in a high-minded yet ultimately flawed tale of racism amongst the ranks of the US military during the Second World War.
When Lieutenant Thomas Hart (Farrell) is sent to a German POW camp he's banished from the officer's barracks by presiding US officer Colonel McNamara (Willis), who senses that Hart caved under Nazi interrogation. Desperate to redeem himself, Hart is given the task of defending Lieutenant Scott (Howard); a pilot accused of killing an officer. But Scott is already the subject of much animosity because he is black, and with McNamara's manipulative interventions, Hart soon discovers his task is nigh on impossible.
The trouble is, where Hart's inexperience and gullibility work against him in the trial, similarly his infantile innocence makes his character unconvincing - he's lead such a sheltered life, it's a wonder he can tie his own shoelaces. And so Scott must undergo degradation in the prison camp where the inmates condemn Nazi fascism but happily persecute a black American; an absorbing angle on the POW drama which is sadly undermined by a conclusion where the hero is white.
Farrell, who so far in his promising career has yet to be furnished with a decent script, thankfully manages to outshine the role and successfully plays the foil to Willis's world-weary colonel.
With its beautiful cinematography - icy European landscapes perpetuating the feeling of dominant whiteness - "Hart's War" is certainly a pleasure to look at. It's just a shame that its intelligent message is not quite so striking.