MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
HART'S WAR wasn't a bad film, but it was an
unsatisfying one. It's well photographed, has interesting characters, no shortage of plot,
a couple of good twists, and even tackles some interesting issues. So what went
At first HART'S WAR wanders around for about an hour looking for a story - The
movie opens with young Lt. Hart (Colin Ferrall - no relations to Will) working in Allied
HQ during World War 2. While chauffering a soldier and a case of champagne to a
General's office, he's captured by the Germans... interrogated for enough screen time
to make us wonder if that's what the film will be about... then sent by train to a POW
camp. The train ride to the POW camp seems like a movie in itself - when snow
covers the POW markings on the roof of the train it is attacked by US planes who think
it might be carrying supplies. Several POWs die (one in Hart's arms) and they end up
walking the rest of the way to the POW camp. After numerous subplots involving the
evil Nazi Commandant (Marcel Iures) and ranking soldier Bruce Willis locking horns,
and the problems of integrated prisoners of war in a still-segregated military, the film
finally settles on a story - a courtroom drama.
Black fighter pilot Terrence Howard is accused of murdering bigoted prison camp
crime kingpin Cole Hauser (yes - relation to Wings) and Willis insists on an official
military Courts Martial before the Germans execute Howard. Hart is given the job of
defending him. Howard says that he's innocent, and the case is purely circumstantial.
What little physical evidence there is when Hart is appointed seems to substantiate
Howard's story of innocence. It looks like Howard was framed because he's Black -
previously another Black POW was framed for trying to escape and executed. Howard
is presented to us as an innocent man falsely accused.
There are two problems facing Hart in the Courts Martial trial:
1) He was a second
year law student when the war began, and the soldier acting as prosecutor was a hot-shot Harvard educated lawyer before being called up. Hart doesn't even know the basic
rules of a Courts Martial, and doesn't own a trial manual.
2) Willis orders him to lose the
trial. You see, Hauser was murdered outside of the barracks AFTER lock-down. While
the Nazis think the POWS are safely locked up for the night, they are actually sneaking
around the camp doing mischief. They have a secret door (complete with hinges) built
into the latrine (yech!). Even though Willis is a POW, he's still trying to fight the Nazis in
whatever way he can - stealing supplies, giving bread to the starving Russian POWs,
etc. Willis can't let the Germans know they have a way out of the barracks after lock-down... even if it means an innocent man will be sentenced to death. Allowing the
Germans to believe that two POWS found a way out of the barracks to settle their
personal dispute is okay, but Hart can not introduce other suspects without explaining
how they could be outside the barracks after lock-down. In war, sometimes a man must
jump on a grenade in order to save his fellow soldiers... Hart is ordered to lose the trial and let
Howard be executed to save all of the other POWs. So Hart does his part to win the
war... by losing the trial.
Do you see the problem with this scenario? It's a negative goal. We are placed in
the position where we must root for Hart to fail, so that an innocent man will die.
And how can we tell the difference between Hart losing the trial on purpose and losing it
because he's incompetent? Guy is a second year law school student who doesn't know what he's doing, right?
How can we see someone *not* accomplish something?
STANDING STILL? OR NOT RUNNING?
This is not a scenario where Howard sacrifices himself by jumping on a grenade to
save the other men - Howard just sits there in the courtroom, the prosecution is
performing the actions. Hart is not sacrificing himself, nor is he DOING ANYTHING to
aid in the sacrifice... Hart is DOING NOTHING. He is going through the motions of
investigation without digging too deep, he is going through the motions of defending
Howard without doing a good enough job to win. His goal is to do nothing... so how do
we know he's achieved it?
The only way to show that a man is NOT running is to have everyone else run. If
everyone is standing still, how will we know that one guy isn't running? If some people
are walking and others are running, our guy could be NOT running or NOT walking. It's
only when EVERYONE is performing an action EXCEPT our guy that we can know he's
NOT performing the action... and there are still variables that might explain why he isn't
running. How do we know he's not running on purpose? He might be not running by
accident or stupidity! So if we're trying to show our guy isn't running because he's
brave, we still haven't really shown that. It's almost impossible to clearly show a
negative goal - someone NOT achieving something on purpose.
A couple of years ago I was up for a rewrite on a Dennis Hopper film about a
college town cop chasing a serial killer who sent quizzes
to College students - if they answered the questions correctly, he killed them. See, the
quiz was all about pop culture, and the serial killer thought college kids should spend
more time reading War And Peace and less time watching FRIENDS and listening to
SmashMouth's latest CD. The leading lady was smart... but is she smart enough to
answer the questions wrong? I pointed out to the producer that two types of people
could escape the serial killer - college students who studied so hard they didn't have
time for pop culture, and complete morons. But what about college students who
studied hard AND also knew the names of all of the characters on FRIENDS? I knew all
kinds of things about Brittany Spears, but I don't think I'd ever heard one of her songs
all the way through at the time. You can know pop culture and know others things as well -
one doesn't exclude the other. I'm kind of a knowledge junkie. I know that the Pledge Of Allegiance
didn't contain any reference to God before 1954 - before then the separation of Church
& State was taken more seriously. I know that James Buchanan was the only
"confirmed bachelor" President - he never married... maybe he was Gay? I know that
there are 287 Indian Reservations, and that each is a nations within our nation. I know
that Phoebe's twin sister is named Ursula. I know that Galileo not only discovered the
four largest moons of Jupiter, he invented the thermometer.
Just because someone
knows about pop culture doesn't mean they haven't been doing the homework in their
college class... And it creates a situation where if our leading lady wants to survive, she
has to answer the quiz questions wrong. She has to look stupid to prove she's smart.
That's a contradiction. Stupid people also look stupid, but they aren't smart. And there's
something just wrong with rooting for a character to fail on purpose - it's impossible to
know if that person failed because they worked hard to fail, or if they failed because
they really are incompetent. My suggestion was to have the serial killer asking college exam
questions... but the story was supposed to be about the evils of pop culture, so I did not get
that rewrite job. Problem is, it's almost impossible to show a negative goal has been
achieved on purpose!
A negative goal puts the audience in a strange position - it's natural to reward
someone for their efforts, to root for people to succeed. But when success is measured
by failure, it's easy for the audience to become confused. Do we cheer when OUR
TEAM drops the ball? When OUR TEAM screws up? Our natural instinct is NOT to
cheer - but to be angry or disappointed. If we're angry and disappointed at the hero's
success in achieving his goal we're not feeling satisfied at the end of the film. It's
difficult for the audience to root for failure... and that creates an unsatisfying story
Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good
men to do nothing." Our hero is doing nothing... and it's hard to cheer him on.
So in HART'S WAR we are rooting for Hart to lose the case - but is Hart trying
really hard to lose the case, or is he just a moron who would have lost the case
anyway? Remember - he's the underdog in the trial, the 2nd year law student. So he
may just be incompetent. Do we want the audience to reward his incompetence? That's
another problem with a negative goal - because the only way to see the goal is by
failure when the hero should have succeeded. For a failure to fail is undramatic - Hart should
have been the slick Harvard lawyer who has never lost a case... because then we would know he is
losing this one on purpose. Also, there would be some drama built in to that - he would have to
swallow his pride and look like a loser... in order to be a winner.
But that scenario doesn't really work, either: If Hart is above failure and perfect... Well,
perfect characters are undramatic and boring and difficult to like. He'd have to be some sort
of arrogant prick for the story to really work... and audiences *want* to see that type of character fail.
Drama practically requires the hero be an underdog - we don't cheer for Goliath, we
cheer for David. But for a negative goal to work, we have to take Goliath's side in the
battle with David. The thing that makes a negative goal work for the story also manages
to repulse the audience - we don't want to root for the big guy to stomp the little guy!
I'm sure the decided to make this novel into a film *because* the story was subversive - certainly not
because the audience was clamoring for a World War 2 Courtroom Drama. But the scenario out-clevers
itself. To show that Hart isn't losing the case because he's a moron he can't be the underdog, in
order to gain audience sympathy he must be the underdog. That's another contradiction
that tears the audience apart when you're dealing with a negative goal story.
ON THE PAGE vs. ON THE SCREEN
Though in a novel this might have worked due to the thoughts and feelings of the character, those
are elements that do not translate to the screen. I haven't read the screenplay, but can imagine a
clever writer finding ways to "cheat" in thoughts and feelings so that the scenario worked on the page and
we understood that Hart was trying to lose...
but since none of those things would ever end up on the screen, the movie was doomed to fail. We can not
know that he is failing *on purpose* on screen. We can only know if he is failing or succeeding. Any
"cheats" that tell us *why* stay on the page - never making it to the screen and the audience. In a novel
(or a screenplay full of "cheats") the reader may understand that Hart is trying to fail, but on screen
all we can see is the failure itself. The audience can't read the "cheats" and probably hasn't read
the novel, so they never get that critical information.
We can't really show Hart *not* investigating the crime. We can't really show Hart
*not* calling a witness. We can't really show Hart *not* asking a witness on the stand an
important question. We can't really show Hart *not* objecting to a question. So how can
we really know that Hart is losing the case on purpose? How can we show a negative
goal? And if we can ever figure out that question, we come to the other big question:
How can we get an audience to root for our hero to fail and an innocent man to be put
You can show people DOING THINGS on screen, but it's almost impossible to
show them NOT DOING THINGS. A man not running might also be not walking or not
singing or not flying or nor skipping or not strolling or not jumping up and down or not...
We can't really know what someone is NOT doing or NOT saying. Film requires people
doing things - we can see the MOTION. If Hart never makes a motion - either in the
courtroom or in the field investigating - nothing is happening. There is no information
being imparted to the audience. That's why HART'S WAR is just an okay movie - the
most important thing the hero does is... Nothing.
How do you show a character *not* doing something?
Beware of any situation where a character's goal is NOT to perform an action. Beware of
creating a story where the hero must fail in order to succeed. Beware of stories with negative goals.
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