Telling a POW’s Tale
As Nicholas Katzenbach walked onto the film set of “Hart’s War,” the memories of his prisoner-of-war days during World War II were brought back full force.
“It was as realistic, as accurate as it could be,” says Katzenbach, 80, whose son John wrote the novel on which the MGM film, which opens today, is based. “It gave me a chill.”
John, 51, recalls his father stepping out of a taxi in Milovice, the small Czech town where much of the film was shot and seeing the replica of the guard tower. “He said to me, ‘I never thought I’d see that again,’ said John, who doesn’t remember his father, Nicholas--attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson--talking much about his 27 months as a POW in Germany.
There weren’t many stories about his being shot down in the Mediterranean in February 1943 on his 20th bombing mission, about being plucked out of the ocean by the Italians, being given starvation rations or being jammed into boxcars so full only half the men could sit at a time. But John Katzenbach is a former journalist and a mystery writer, and ultimately his father’s history became fodder for a novel.
In a recent interview, both father and son stressed that the book is a novel and only loosely based on Nicholas’ experiences. And as is almost always the case, the film itself is one step removed from the book. For example, in the book, Tommy, like young Nicholas Katzenbach, is a navigator who is shot down. Like Nicholas, he is a young Ivy Leaguer. Like Nicholas, he was shoeless upon capture. But the similarity pretty much ends there.
“We departed quite a bit from the novel and at times John wasn’t quite sure, but at the end of the day, we didn’t depart from the integrity,” says the film’s producer, David Ladd.
John Katzenbach agrees. “A lot of novelists sit around and whine about what Hollywood does to their books, but movies are not books. I wanted them to find the core of what was in the book and turn it into a terrific movie--to create something that would stand on its own two feet.”
Despite the fact that the movie is being marketed as a Bruce Willis action shoot-'em-up--to the dismay of director Gregory Hoblit, who calls it a “disservice” to the real POWs--the crux of the film is about two black aviators who are shot down and join the all-white POW camp. The fliers--Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lt. Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon)--ignite seething racism in some of the enlisted men, leading to a murder and a court-martial within the POW camp. Colin Farrell, the young Irish actor known best for his work in the Vietnam-era movie “Tigerland”, plays Tommy Hart, a fresh-faced lieutenant who represents defendant Scott, while Willis stars as tough and embittered Col. William McNamara, the highest-ranking American officer in the camp.
None of that happened at Katzenbach’s POW camp. Some black aviators were shot down and joined his camp, but, Katzenbach says, the POW commanding officer was from South Carolina “and he was absolutely determined there would be no racial discrimination that the Germans could use for propaganda. He put the first black officer in with nine men from below the Mason-Dixon Line and said, ‘If there are any problems, there will be a court-martial when we get back.’”
Even if the racist incidents were not part of Nicholas’ POW experience, John says his interest in such issues stems directly from his father’s role in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during the 1960s.
“Every good idea he inherited from me,” his father jokes. With a sidelong look at this father, John pretends to ignore him, but agrees that “I tend to write novels that have race or age at the core. Tommy Hart went to war, but his real war was against racism.”
For producer-director Hoblit (“Primal Fear,” “Frequency”) one of his key goals was to accurately portray the soldiers’ daily lives. During his research for the movie, “it became clear to me, I was not only dealing with the greatest generation, but with a passing generation. Soon there won’t be anyone to tell the first-person story.
“I felt it was imperative to get everything right. I wanted veterans who were watching it to think we got it right.... If we did that, I’ll be a long way toward being a happy person.”
Nicholas Katzenbach says the movie successfully reflects some of the monotony of being a prisoner of war. “Sitting in camp, the primary thing is you’re bored to death,” he says. In fact, Nicholas, who had interrupted his undergraduate education at Princeton to join the war, managed to graduate with his class by reading the textbooks for his junior and senior years in the camp. The books were sent by the YMCA, “and every once in awhile the Germans would slip in a ‘Mein Kampf’ in English,” recalls Nicholas, who lives in Princeton, N.J.
The younger Katzenbach, who lives in Amherst, Mass., says that was the main message he got as a child about his father’s POW days--"that there’s an opportunity in every situation, no matter how harsh.”
That is not to say that the elder Katzenbach’s time as a POW was without drama. He recalls that while being transported by train after their capture, as in the movie, American fliers accidentally began bombing the POW trains. The boxcars flew open and “we got out and we started walking in our uniforms,” he says. “We were about 40 or 50 miles from the Swiss border. No one stopped us. Then we see a whole platoon of Germans marching along, and we stepped into a doorway to be inconspicuous. But it happened to be the doorway of the German headquarters.”
Katzenbach and his comrades were caught and put back on the train. “The SS took over and said for every one of us who escaped, two would be shot. And for every boxcar that escaped, all the men in each boxcar on either side would be executed. I never doubted they would do it.”
The film crew got some of the feeling of what it was like to survive in the harsh European winter, spending six months filming in and around Prague, often at night, in subzero temperatures. The camp replica was built on 400 acres, with dozens of barracks and guard towers.
Some Cast Members Spent a Night in the Cold
Willis and some of the other cast members got so into the moviemaking that they spent one night sleeping on a straw mattress in the freezing tents that housed the POWs. When the crew began filming the next morning, Willis “stuck his head out and said good morning,” Hoblit recalls. Coincidentally, the film’s POW consultant was Col. Hal Cook, who was imprisoned in the same camp --Stalag Luft III--as Nicholas Katzenbach although they did not know each other.
What particularly attracted Hoblit to the film was the difficulty and challenge of portraying men, all of whom are flawed, but nonetheless who “whatever their biases, whatever their world view, try to do the right thing.” The mixture of wartime action and courtroom (or at least court-martial) drama makes it a hard movie to pigeonhole, and producer Ladd acknowledges that “it’s something we carefully tried to weave together seamlessly.”
However, the ad campaign is pushing “Hart’s War” as a Willis action movie, and Hoblit, for one, is not happy about that. “We had ferocious battles about it and city hall won,” he says ruefully. “The studio wanted to unapologetically market it to the heart of the Bruce Willis market and that’s what it did.”
Although the $70-million movie does have action and suspense and excitement, as portrayed in the commercials and previews, “what is missing [in the ad campaign] is the dignity of men in unspeakable conditions,” Hoblit says. “It does a disservice to guys like Nicholas. Here we are making a movie about honesty and decency and behaving well and that’s exactly what we don’t behave like in selling a movie.”
On the other hand, John Katzenbach says, “I think they need to put people into the seats. If then you can say to them, here’s something you can learn at the same time, so much the better.”
The producers say the campaign may change as the movie reviews come out and audience reaction registers, and note that, surprisingly, the most positive response from preview audiences came in the 30-year-old plus female group. “It doesn’t look like a movie that would appeal to that group, yet it is,” Ladd says.
For him, the movie is “a reflection of men who sacrificed a lot to gain freedom for the free world, and if you want to know the truth, I don’t care what anyone thinks. I can’t remember feeling that way before. I feel a real sense of ‘we did good.’ At the end of the day, you don’t live with your grosses, you live with yourself.”