Grade: C

“To Kill a Spottdrossel” might be a better title for Gregory Hoblit’s curiously slow, talky combination of World War II POW drama and courtroom thriller, an odd and pretentious attempt to situate the sort of earnest commentary on racial intolerance that featured Atticus Finch within a context that, at various times, recalls both “Stalag 17” and “The Great Escape.” The result is a muddled brew, an alternately murky and overly explicit story that aims to be uplifting but remains distinctly earthbound.

The titular character is a callow lieutenant (Colin Farrell) who’s captured in France shortly after D-Day and sent to a POW camp where a stern, by-the-book man, Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), is the highest-ranking American officer. Despite his status, Hart is housed in an enlisted men’s barracks, where two captured black airmen are also soon installed. Their presence engenders considerable animosity, especially on the part of unreconstructed racist Sergeant Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), who engineers the brutal killing of one of the blacks by the Germans. Before long the other pilot, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard), stands accused of Bedford’s murder, and Hart, an erstwhile law student, is assigned to defend the man before a court-martial presided over by McNamara. (This unlikely scenario is made possible by the fact that the camp commander, Col. Werner Visser, played by Marcel Iures, had once studied in the US and, contemptuous of McNamara’s claims to egalitarianism, believes that such a trial will disclose the hypocrisy of the American judicial system and the society it represents.) The courtroom becomes a test of wills involving Hart, McNamara, Scott and Visser, especially since Hart discovers that the truth about Bedford’s death, if disclosed, could endanger a mission which McNamara is secretly contriving to strike a serious military blow against the Nazis. A crisis of conscience occurs when a moral question is raised about the propriety of saving one life at the expense of many. In such a situation, where do courage and honor really lie?

The issues posed by “Hart’s War” aren’t insignificant ones, but they’re not dramatized particularly well by scripters Billy Ray and Terry George, working from the novel by John Katzenbach. The writing duo represents a curious teaming, since Ray was responsible for the silly disaster flick “Volcano,” while George is known for serious character studies–“In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer,” for example. Perhaps it was thought that the combination would result in something that had both the breadth of a large-scale epic and the power of an intimate drama, but what’s happened instead is that the strength of each writer has apparently been diluted by the presence of the other. The larger sequences are relatively constricted (an explosive climax is done almost offhandedly, from a distance and without much strategic clarification), and the more personal elements are alternately opaque and obvious. The convolutions of the plot are often obscure, but on the other hand all too frequently the narrative simply halts so that characters can deliver long, brutally over-emphatic monologues on whatever might be troubling them at the moment; and the courtroom machinations sputter along in fits and starts, never building to a satisfactory climax. At the end, when characters are virtually falling over one another to sacrifice themselves for the good of everyone else, things have gotten completely out- of-hand. It’s rather like a succession of guys, each enjoying his own “I’m Spartacus!” moment.

The script’s weaknesses might have been disguised by energetic direction, but Hoblit adopts a lugubrious, funereal style that sometimes makes the actors feel like mannequins. Willis is the worst offender: his minimalist style, which worked in “The Sixth Sense,” has degenerated into sheer mannerism; in this instance, he seems at his most animated when, at the close, he’s lying prone on the ground. Farrell remains a personable fellow, and a potentially strong leading man; unfortunately, here his character is so hesitant and restrained that he gives a performance that’s a virtual catalogue of ticks and tricks. Howard strikes the proper pose of wounded dignity, and Hauser that of vicious bigotry, but both are awfully blatant about it As for Iures, he’s probably a good actor; it’s a pity that Visser is written as the archetypical corruptly cultured German, at times presented as snarlingly efficient and at others as virtually clueless. (You never know whether he’s going to remind you more of Erich von Stroheim or of Werner Klemperer.) Everyone else in the cast is fairly anonymous, and the gloomy pall that settles over the picture is accentuated by Alar Kivilo’s cinematography, which emphasizes drab blues, browns and greens throughout, as well as by Rachel Portman’s droning score, with its all-too-obvious appeals to emotion.

“Hart’s War” is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but it attempts to deliver too many messages at once, and does so with far too heavy a hand. It’s trying to be another “A Soldier’s Story,” but in the end winds up in the tepid company of “Rules of Engagement.”