Beyond courage, beyond honor
Fourth generation military Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis) is imprisoned in a German POW camp. Still, as the camp’s highest-ranking American officer, he commands his fellow inmates, keeping a sense of honor alive in a place where honor is easy to destroy, all under the dangerous, ever-watchful eye of German Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures). Never relinquishing his duty as a soldier, McNamara is silently planning, waiting for his moment to strike back at the enemy.
A murder in the camp gives him the chance to set a risky plan in motion. With a court martial to keep Visser and the German guards distracted, McNamara orchestrates a cunning scheme to escape and destroy a nearby munitions plant, enlisting the unwitting help of young Lt. Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell). Together with his men, McNamara uses a hero’s resolve to carry out his mission, ultimately forced to weigh the value of his life against the good of his men and his country. Hart’s War is an incredible example of the honor, courage, and sacrifices made by soldiers at war in defending the American way of life.
Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell star in MGM Pictures’ Hart's War (2001), a David Ladd Films, David Foster Productions, and Cheyenne Enterprises production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Directed by Gregory Hoblit, the screenplay is by Billy Ray and Terry George, based on the novel by John Katzenbach. Hart’s War also stars Terrence Howard, Cole Hauser, Marcel Iures, and Linus Roache, and was produced by David Ladd, David Foster, Gregory Hoblit, and Arnold Rifkin, with Wolfgang Glattes as executive producer. The talented roster of filmmakers includes director of photography Alar Kivilo, production designer Lilly Kilvert, and editor David Rosenbloom. The costumes were designed by Elisabetta Beraldo, with music composed by Academy Award-winner Rachel Portman.
About The Production
Author John Katzenbach wrote the novel Hart's War (2001) based partly on the experiences of his father, Nicholas Katzenbach, a prisoner-of-war during World War II at Stalag Luft III. After surviving his imprisonment, Katzenbach later served as attorney general of the United States under President Lyndon Johnson.
As my father grew older, I realized we had never really spoken about his POW ordeal, John Katzenbach says. 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.
Katzenbach viewed the POW camp as not only a strong setting for a thriller, but saw the story as a testament to the difficulties his father endured. An accessory to the truth he calls it. By writing Hart’s War, Katzenbach was able to both dramatize the courage and heroism displayed by American prisoners-of-war and to honor his father, who has been an inspiration to him throughout his life.
Incidentally, several members of the production also had familial ties to the war. Costume designer Elisabetta Beraldo’s grandfather was an Italian POW. The father of executive producer Wolfgang Glattes was the first German U-boat commander taken prisoner by the Allies, and MGM studio chief Chris McGurk’s father was also a POW. One of the film’s technical advisors, Colonel Hal Cook, was imprisoned in the same camp as Nicholas Katzenbach.
A film version of [Hart’s War] began to take shape when producers David Ladd and David Foster were separately sent early chapters of Katzenbach’s novel. Each, unbeknownst to the other, immediately spoke to different people at MGM about the exciting project. They agreed to join forces, and MGM Pictures President Michael Nathanson bought the project for the studio. Development was immediately underway.
“The challenge in development was blending all the book’s marvelous 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.”
After positive drafts of the script were written by Jeb Stuart and Terry George, writer Billy Ray was brought in to write the final draft that led to production.
“This project was an opportunity to write an open love letter to the men who served and suffered during World War II, a cinematic tip of the hat,” says Billy Ray, an avid student of military history. Ray exhaustively researched the day-to-day lives of soldiers and the hardships of men in captivity, citing such references as The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, Goodbye, Darkness by W. Manchester, and Stalag Luft III: The Secret Story by Arthur Durand.
I belong to the first generation of American men who were never called to serve, Ray continues, and have always felt grateful, yet guilt-ridden about it. The awe I feel for these veterans grows as I get older and their achievements become crystallized in history.
Producer David Foster is a Korean War veteran, and agrees the script honors some of our country’s greatest heroes. “When I was in the Army,” he says, “I was a speechwriter for Mike Daniels, Commanding General of the U.S. Army of the Pacific (USARPAC), who would regale us with horrible, funny and scary stories about the fighting in Europe. One story was about American soldiers liberating a POW camp and how emotional it was for both the POWs and the guys who were liberating them, all these strong military men crying and hugging. That story has stuck with me ever since, and when I read this book, it’s the first thing I thought about. We should all be very proud of their sacrifices and contributions.”
With a script in place, finding a director was necessary, and at the top of the producers’ wish list was Gregory Hoblit, an accomplished helmer who launched Edward Norton’s career in Primal Fear and is acclaimed for cutting-edge work on such shows as NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues.
“Greg has a unique understanding of male bonding and conflict, and this is about as male a film as you could make,” Ladd says. (Indeed, there are no female actors among the 43-member speaking cast.) “He also has a great knowledge of courtroom drama, gained from his work on Primal Fear and such shows as L.A. Law. We needed someone who could handle that aspect of the story as well.”
Hoblit, also the director of Frequency and Fallen, says he was attracted to the project by its well-written, relevant, and densely packed story.
“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,” he says. “Hart’s War illuminates fascinating aspects of the military and of World War II captivity that a lot of people are probably not aware of.
“I also thought the story was loaded with wonderful characters whose lives I wanted to explore. Certainly this film has lots of impressive bells and whistles – airplanes 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, people just talking to each other.”
With Hoblit on board, attentions turned to casting the film. When Michael Nathanson first read Hart’s War, he imagined Bruce Willis in the role of Col. William McNamara, feeling that Willis’ steely intensity and impressive skills made him the perfect actor to bring McNamara to the big screen. Nathanson sent a copy of the script to Arnold Rifkin, Willis’ producing partner with whom he runs Cheyenne Enterprises. Upon reading the script, Rifkin wholeheartedly agreed with Nathanson’s instinct.
“I fell in love with this movie when I read it,” Rifkin says, “and immediately saw that McNamara would be a perfect role for Bruce. It’s hard to find quality material, but Hart’s War tells an amazing story and tells it really well. I knew that Bruce and I would want to be a part of the project.” Rifkin shared his enthusiasm with Willis, and Willis soon decided to play the part. With Rifkin and Willis attached, the film was now really coming together.
In describing what attracted him to the role, Willis says, “I’ve been a student of WWII for a long time and thought this was a great script, taut and exciting.”
“I’m incredibly grateful,” says Hoblit of Willis’ casting, “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.”
With McNamara in place, filmmakers started looking for a Lieutenant Tommy Hart, the other central character in the script. They knew they found him after seeing Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland. In that gritty drama, young Irish actor Colin Farrell delivered a mesmerizing performance as an insolent Vietnam-era army recruit. Hoblit took a print of the film to Rifkin’s house in Idaho to show Rifkin and Willis, and they also immediately liked Farrell’s work. The producers were ecstatic.
“Colin just jumps off the screen. He’s exactly what we were looking for,” says producer David Foster. “This is very much a coming-of-age story, with a tremendous character arc for an actor to play. Colin possesses at once both the youthfulness inherent in the character and the maturity as an actor to pull it off.”
Ladd remarks, “Bruce Willis brings a real intensity to the set, both as an actor and because of who he is. 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.”
Before filming began, Farrell spent some time at Yale familiarizing himself with Ivy League campus life. At 24, he is the exact age of Tommy Hart, a fact that was not lost on Hoblit, who has an eye for spotting talent. The director auditioned more than 2,000 actors before selecting an unknown Edward Norton for Primal Fear and conducted a similar talent search on Frequency before choosing Jim Caviezel.
“I think it’s exciting that many audiences will have few expectations of Colin,” Hoblit says. “He’s been in a few movies, but for many filmgoers, the movie will introduce him and his character at the same time. There is a unique sense of discovery that happens with a new performer as talented as Colin, and I think audiences will really respond to him.”
Terrence Howard, Cole Hauser, Marcel Iures, and Linus Roache round out the talented lead cast as Lt. Lincoln A. Scott, Staff Sgt. Vic W. Bedford, Col. Werner Visser, and Capt. Peter A. Ross, respectively. Each actor brought his own strengths to the role, and the filmmakers agree the result is quite amazing. “I was impressed by the script’s well-rounded ensemble parts and wanted to do them justice,” says Hoblit. “In their roles as Visser, Bedford, Archer and Ross, these actors gave dimension to characters that easily could have been stock, cardboard stereotypes. That’s a testament to both the actors and the script.”
SETTING UP CAMP
Cold, confining, and austere, the POW camp in Hart’s War is a forbidding place where the rules are subject to the whim of one man: Colonel Visser. His authority is absolute. In the film, when challenged by McNamara for disregarding the Geneva Convention, the German’s response is icy and final: “Look around you, Colonel. This…is not Geneva.”
In bringing Hart’s War to life, the filmmakers considered the camp as much a character as a setting. Created by production designer Lilly Kilvert, Stalag VI is an amalgam of the 130 or so German POW camps that existed during WWII, which were varied in appearance, function and privileges.
Built on some 400 acres, with dozens of barracks and guard towers, the camp was muddy, snowy and freezing through six weeks of mostly night shooting. It was built in the small Czech community of Milovice, an hour’s drive from Prague and a former home to the last Russian army barracks in the country.
“No matter how good a mood I was in, about ten minutes before our car arrived in Milovice I would start to get depressed,” says Bruce Willis. “I wasn’t sure why until I realized it was the camp itself, which was bleak and miserable. It made this one of the most physically demanding roles I’ve done.”
On the eve of beginning shooting at the camp, Willis spent the night in one of its wooden barracks along with several cast members. Temperatures outside dipped into the 20s. Says Hoblit, “We showed up early the next morning to begin blocking some scenes, and I saw Bruce rolling out of one of the beds inside the barracks.”
The bed was identical to those in real German POW camps: a coarse wooden structure lined with cross boards and straw. Allied prisoners received a single blanket to stave off the cold, forcing them to sleep in coats and shoes.
“The camp experience was intense, to say the least,” says Colin Farrell. “It gave us, in the smallest sense, an idea of what the prisoners had to contend with. Along with the obvious physical hardship, they endured extreme mental stress. Constant surveillance from the guards, no privacy, no moments to yourself. There was no sense of the future because they couldn’t see past tomorrow.”
Kilvert spent months reading books, researching films and photos, and studying documents, all in preparation to design the sets. She wanted to know who these men were who stayed in the camps, how the camps were built, and with what materials and tools.
“I was interested in what the men used for bedding, what they ate, how they washed their clothes, how often they shaved, how they kept warm – everything,” says Kilvert. “Above all else, I wanted it to be real. I wanted to convey the cramped space inside the fence, contrasted by the vast emptiness and isolation surrounding it. These men were truly in the middle of nowhere. I also wanted to express cold, constant cold and snow, something they could never escape.”
Though she was restricted to a limited palette of browns and grays, Kilvert says the snow was not only effective in conveying a harsh winter, but in creating a beautiful background for the lurid olive drab of the prisoners’ uniforms.
On the first night shoot, a blizzard also created a stunning vista for a wide shot in which 1,500 soldiers are being marched on a moonlit night through the woods and into the eerily lit camp. Nearly 3,000 extras were required for a similar massive entrance scene, creating wartime-like logistical challenges in transport, scheduling and catering. Inside the camp, there was a strict mandate for accuracy. Everything, from clothing worn by extras to the tin cups inside the barracks to the barbed wire surrounding them, was to look as it would in 1944.
“The rule was, if it’s not authentic looking, there better be a good reason why not,” says set decorator Patrick Cassidy. “A very, very good reason.”
One artistic license permitted in the story was Allied officers and enlisted men living in the same quarters as opposed to being separated. Normally they were segregated into different camps, although that changed as well with the influx of prisoners from the Battle of the Bulge.
After all the preparation and hard work, the filmmakers’ desire for realism was validated by a visit from John Katzenbach and his father, Nicholas, whose 27 months of captivity at Stalag Luft III inspired his son’s book. The two men, accompanied by John’s son, were visibly moved during a tour of the camp.
Says Nicholas Katzenbach, “The camp is so accurate it’s creepy. I think it is important if you're going to make a movie about any aspect of World War II to be as honest and realistic as you can. The good things and the bad things. I’m proud of what they’ve done here.”
“Walking through the camp brought vivid memories back to Nicholas, and I was extremely pleased that he felt we got it right,” says Hoblit. “We want to honor veterans with this film. It’s important that they see it and think, ‘Yes, these filmmakers have been respectful and truthful to our experience.’”
THE POW TRAIN SEQUENCE
In the beginning of the film, after Tommy Hart is captured, the audience is shown the brutal journey POWs were forced to take en route to the camps. In a word, the conditions were unimaginable. Herded into boxcars like cattle, many of the American prisoners were already seriously injured, poorly clothed and ill. Because of the severely cramped space, they had to stand or sit in shifts. A single bucket was provided for sanitation.
As the train pulls into a station, American fighter planes soar in for an attack, unaware the boxcars are full of prisoners because they’re unable to read the POW markings on the boxcar roofs (which are covered with snow). Hart and his fellow captives desperately try to save themselves, and what ensues is one of the most riveting and impressive scenes the filmmakers created.
Shot in five days on both exterior and interior sets, the POW train sequence is one of the most complicated and action-packed in the film, involving thousands of squibs, multiple pyrotechnic explosions, and a pulley harness stunt. The location, in the small Czech town of Zvoloneves, offered an ideal set of railroad tracks aside a 50-foot hill and a picturesque bridge overpass.
Two vintage P-51 planes, provided by the English aerial film services company Flying Pictures, screamed overhead repeatedly during shooting, flying low and clearing the bridge by mere inches. (One of the planes was once flown by World War II flying ace Ray Littge from Missouri, who recorded 24 victories in his career before being killed in 1949 at age 25 testing a jet aircraft.) Twelve cameras were used to film the flying sequence, with Hoblit and director of photography Alar Kivilo sitting behind an endless row of video playback monitors. It was quite a challenge for Kivilo to get the shots he and Hoblit wanted, but he succeeded beautifully.
CAPTURING IT ALL ON FILM
The Montreal-born Kivilo worked previously with Hoblit on Frequency and welcomed the opportunity to do so again. “We agreed at the onset to take a straightforward approach,” Kivilo says. “Greg is known for active, long-lens camera work, but for this film he specifically desired a simpler look that would not interfere with the narrative. What we came up with is really a hybrid of captured moments played out in classically-framed master shots.”
Hoblit and Kivilo scouted every inch of the location where the POW camp would be built back in September 2000, determining what angles and perspectives they would utilize, and observing how the sunlight traced through the neighboring forest. Very few long or wide-angle lenses were used, nor did they use a Steadicam. Hundreds of clear, practical tungsten lights (authentic to the period) were installed at the POW compound and wired to a dimmer switch to be incorporated into the camp’s overall lighting scheme.
“There is a very controlled palette in this film determined by the production and costume design, and I wanted the photography to support that,” says Kivilo. “I had a motto that there was no sun in this movie, and the look was kept cold and gray with bluish hues. The intent was to accentuate the location’s bleakness.”
Nearby Barrandov Studios was put to use during the production. Because of Barrandov’s development lab and digital editing facilities, editor David Rosenbloom was able to quickly compile cuts of scenes on location. That advantage, along with plentiful stage space, experienced technicians, and access to a vast supply of WWII armaments, contributed to the filmmakers’ decision to shoot in Prague. A burgeoning location for major Hollywood productions, the Czech capitol has a stellar movie-making tradition dating to the 1920s. In fact, Barrandov Studios was used by Hitler during the war to make many of his propaganda films.
Recalls David Ladd, “I was visiting Prague in the fall of 1997 and fell in love with its beauty and antiquity. During a tour of Barrandov Studios I was quite impressed with its enormous amount of props and wardrobes. Three weeks later the Hart’s War manuscript arrived and I knew Prague was the ideal place to shoot it.”
Barrandov’s cavernous Stage 6 (the second largest soundstage in Europe) served as home to the C Barracks interior set, where the first day of shooting occurred. The scene involved an intricate series of shots introducing Lt. Hart to the cynical enlisted men. Seventeen actors and some 60 extras were packed into a cramped space, presenting severe staging challenges. Throughout rehearsals and takes, Hoblit called the cast over to the replay monitor to observe and adjust their positions.
“Greg blocks in his sleep. He eats and drinks this sort of thing,” says Ladd. “He cut his teeth doing some masterful blocking on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, so he knew precisely what he wanted here.”
Colin Farrell, Cole Hauser, and other cast members received military orientation for Hart’s War from technical advisor Michael Stokey, who was also involved in Tigerland, a film in which Farrell and Hauser previously worked together.
“My objective was to help them understand military protocol and the POW experience,” says Stokey, a decorated Vietnam War veteran thrice wounded during his three tours of duty. “It didn’t involve simulated combat training, but rather learning proper behavior and procedures. There was a strong chain of command in these camps. Just because you were a prisoner didn’t mean you ceased to be a soldier.”
In fact, granting substantial authority to Allied commanders helped the Germans maintain order and discipline. One of the most effective disciplinary measures at their disposal was a solitary confinement facility known as the ‘cooler.’ Lt. Scott finds himself in such a cooler during his weeklong trial. Built adjacent to the C Barracks set on Barrandov’s Stage 7, it was kept true to its name to maintain the effect of winter, requiring crew members to wear heavy clothing as they did at the camp.
Stage 7 additionally housed the quarters of Commandant Visser, comfortably appointed and reflecting his affluence and taste for art deco. Drawing a distinct contrast to the inhospitable conditions outside, the room is replete with fine china adorned with the Nazi insignia, military photos – including a picture of his late son – and a globe with Hitler’s image on its base. A gramophone plays American jazz albums.
“When you see Visser’s room you get a sense he would have been quite content to continue his cultured existence in America, had the war and loyalty to his country not called him home,” says set decorator Patrick Cassidy.
Also constructed on Stage 7 is a sizable theater set where the POWs present a rousing stage show. Such productions were often enthusiastically attended by the Germans as well, and could be quite elaborate, with full costumes, music and skits.
A song and dance number poking fun at Hitler is performed by four soldiers of C Barracks: Bedford, Moose (Sebastian Tillinger), Cromin (Scott Michael Campbell) and West (Tony Devlin). The actors rehearsed with London choreographer Jack Murphy to learn the necessary steps and hit the right notes.
The costumes the men wear onstage were among the 4,000 outfits made by costume designer Elisabetta Beraldo and her 20-person staff. Along with 3,000 soldiers’ uniforms representing seven countries, Beraldo acquired “mountains and mountains” of boots from Mexico, sweaters from Belgium (still manufactured exactly as they were during the war), and numerous leather flyer jackets from a shop in Japan called The Real McCoy. Several of the uniforms worn by lead cast, including Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, are vintage Army originals preserved by Western Costume in Los Angeles.
Working with uniform consultant Joe Hobbs, Beraldo custom tailored individual soldiers, creating distinguishing looks for each nationality of the Allied forces. The uniforms came from Stern, Germany, and were aged through processes of dying, bleaching, brushing, ironing and sandpapering. “Prepping the Russian uniforms was the most challenging because their soldiers were almost in rags toward the end of the war,” says Beraldo. “We had to essentially destroy 500 costumes for them.”
Hatred between the Germans and the Russians was brutally evident in the camps, worsened by the Soviet Union’s failure to sign the Geneva Convention. In one telling scene, Visser sends a message to the hordes of arriving prisoners by hanging three Russians who try to escape. It has been estimated that 983,000 of the six million Russian POWs in Germany died in captivity.
“There was a certain amount of respect granted by the Germans to American officers and pilots,” says Hoblit. “For the Russians, however, it was a different story. They were used as slave labor and their survival rate was terribly low.”
No prisoner, however, could fully evade the Stalag tribulation of survival of the fittest. For the American POWs in Hart’s War, that survival depends on being aware of your enemies. Even if they’re wearing the same uniform.
LIFE IN A POW CAMP
“I’ve always believed that the war robbed me of my youth but gave me my manhood.”
- Colonel Hal Cook, World War II POW
The Battle of the Bulge removed thousands of Allied soldiers from a war of bullets and thrust them into a war of attrition. German POW camps were suddenly inundated with more prisoners than could be adequately accommodated. Contrary to previous procedure, they combined officers and enlisted men, as well as POWs from different military branches.
“The prisoners were of conflicting mental and physical states at this point,” explains Gregory Hoblit. “The war was dragging on and America had just suffered a huge setback. There were some willing to continue the fight by harassing the guards. Others were exhausted and relieved to be free from combat. They just wanted to survive.”
The overcrowding and subsequent forced retreats deeper into Germany resulted in prisoners not receiving much-needed Red Cross parcels. Necessary to supplement meager diets of bread and soup, they contained items such as canned meat, candy, coffee and scarce toiletries like soap and razor blades.
Hart’s War set decorator Patrick Cassidy, whose father was an Air Force general, acquired sample Red Cross kits from the organization’s museum in Switzerland, where he researched life in the camps. “The Red Cross parcels were vital to the POWs’ physical and psychological well-being,” says Cassidy. “Towards the end of the war they arrived irregularly or were intercepted by guards, which made the final months especially hard.”
The Russians never received Red Cross parcels, states British Warrant Officer Andy Anderson, a POW from the Royal Air Force. “We shared our German rations with them, but their starvation was so great they retrieved the tins we disposed of and licked them clean. How can one fathom that kind of hunger?”
Upon his arrival in Stalag 4B, Anderson had to exchange his boots for a pair of wooden Dutch clogs. He received a Red Cross kit containing soap, a shaving stick, toothpaste, hairbrush and socks. Most weeks he received a parcel of 50 cigarettes, which were used as camp currency. Clothing was worn a full week before they were allowed to be laundered.
The guards themselves were also not immune from hardship. Since all German men of suitable age and health were called to arms, camp personnel were either too old, too young, or wounded and physically unable to fight – children as young as 13 and men in their 60s.
For captors and captives alike, the focus was to somehow endure, day after day, the deprivation and boredom. Standing head counts, appels, were conducted at least once a day to make sure no one was missing and to reinforce authority.
Anderson, who consulted with filmmakers during pre-production, says the appels were an irresistible chance to harass the guards.
“We deliberately made it difficult for them by moving around and getting out of line,” he recalls. “Sometimes the count of 200 men would take an hour. Who cared, we had nowhere to go, nothing else to do.”
He believes his camp was probably better than most. A daily loaf of bread was shared among five men, and there were adequate huts available for classroom instruction and stage productions. “One of the prisoners was escorted to Berlin with an armed guard, and allowed to negotiate a deal to exchange cigarettes for theater costumes,” he says.
Disparity among the various camps was one of the things that most intrigued set decorator Patrick Cassidy. “Sometimes you might find Ping-Pong tables or phonographs,” he says. “Some had mail service. There were some with virtually no amenities at all. Generally the Luft camps, for air force prisoners, were the most favorable.”
Survival rates of American POWs in Europe – 1,121 deaths among 93,941 captives, according to Charles Stenger of American Ex-Prisoners of War – were much higher than in the Pacific Theater. Nevertheless, the duress was extreme. Toward the end, when Germany grew desperate and Hitler became paranoid, the Nazi SS took over camp operations from the military branches.
“Prisoners went in weighing 180 pounds and left at 110 or 100,” says production designer Lilly Kilvert. “They would spend 12 hours a day in bed to conserve calories.”
Despite a loss of strength and energy, Allied captives often showed remarkable resourcefulness.
“Among these prisoners were engineers, architects, scientists, and tradesmen,” Kilvert says. “They were very clever in devising ways to build things with no tools or equipment. I read about their exploits with awe.”
Colonel Hal Cook, an American prisoner at Stalag Luft III, consulted with Hart’s War filmmakers on all aspects of camp life and gave valuable input on the script. He attests to the POWs ingenuity. “Some of the guys in my camp put a radio together from all sorts of strange parts,” he says. “I never saw it in one piece because they disassembled it every time, but I know we garnered a lot of information about what was going on outside from that amazing thing.”
The 76-year-old Cook’s story is remarkable – yet not uncommon among POW survivors. A B-24 bomber navigator, Cook was shot down over Austria and forced to march in blizzard conditions to various camps in Germany, causing his socks to mold to his skin. He ended up at Stalag Luft III, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, near what was then the Polish border.
“The guards would not hesitate to shoot at us,” recalls Cook. “Security was tight because a few months earlier 76 British airmen had tunneled out in what became known as ‘The Great Escape.’ Fifty were shot upon recapture.”
Cook says tight discipline was maintained in the camp by the American commanding officer, a highly-respected Colonel unafraid of confrontation.
“In July 1944, very shortly after an attempt on Hitler’s life, the German officer gave the extended arm Nazi salute instead of the customary military one. Our Colonel just stood there – he refused to return the salute.”
Cook credits the commander with saving lives by insisting his men exercise in the compound every day in anticipation of being evacuated deeper into Germany as the Russian Army advanced. He was correct. On January 28, 1945, Cook and 12,000 other Allies were marched through snow and freezing cold, “the worst experience of my life,” into the interior of Germany. Though many died during the ordeal, Cook credits the men’s physical conditioning with preventing more deaths, including his own.
Despite losing 50 pounds during the ordeal, Cook managed, in the closing weeks of the war, to escape to Switzerland. He arrived in New York on May 29, 1945 – his 21st birthday.
“I’ve always believed that the war robbed me of my youth but gave me my manhood,” Cook remarks. He is quick to dismiss accolades for being a hero. “I’m just a survivor. The heroes didn’t come home,” he says quietly.
After visiting the site where he was once held, where only a plaque now remains, Cook came to Prague to begin his work on Hart’s War. His wife was with him when he viewed the film’s POW set at Milovice.
“She gained a greater understanding of what I went through while walking around this camp than she did from all the stories I told her over the years,” Cook says. “ I was honored to be involved with this project, and have been awfully pleased with Hoblit’s attention to detail. There’s an overriding feeling of respect on his part about what fellows like me went through, and it’s been a privilege to share my past with him and these young actors. It’s been a wonderful, touching experience at this end stage of my life.”