The Great Raid

2006-07-12 17:18


It is January, 1945 and the allied forces lead by General MacArthur are slowly but surely prising the Philippines from the grip of the occupying Japanese forces. Just beyond the front lines 511 American POWs are penned inside the brutal Camp Cabantuan. These starving and desperately ill men are the only remaining survivors of the 15,000 soldiers captured by the Japanese after the great defeat at Bataan in April 1942. When news reaches MacArthur that the Japanese have begun executing POWs at other camps in the Philippines, he orders Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and his 6th Ranger Battalion to undertake a daring rescue mission against all odds. Aided by his brilliant young Captain Robert Prince (James Franco), Mucci and his men carry out one of the most audacious rescue missions in military history.


The last three decades have seen some extraordinary and brilliant films about war. From the nightmarish dystopia of Apocalypse Now, to the savage sociological commentary of Full Metal Jacket, to the harrowing and deeply personal experience of Saving Private Ryan, filmmakers have spent the last 30 years exploring war from a multitude of perspectives. We've seen war as horror, war as dark comedy, war as melodrama. We've seen war as the political, the psychological and the emotional. But it's been a long time since we've seen war as war, as reality, as a job to do.

The Great Raid does just that - it demystifies war and reconnects it to the solid and often unglamorous bedrock of fact. An entirely true story, the film is based on two books: "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" by military historian William B. Breuer and "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides. It's clear the filmmakers went to great trouble to maintain historical accuracy, even reworking the original screenplay to follow the facts more closely.

As a result the film often feels far more like a historical account than a feature film. Some may find the lack of melodrama and visceral thrills disappointing, but many others will welcome this fresh perspective on a genre that is normally awash with overcharged emotions. It's fascinating to get a clear look at how an actual military operation played out, and not have to wade through yet another two hours of mud, guts, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Not that the film is cold or clinical - quite the opposite is true. We identify with characters, but in a different mode to more obviously dramatic war films. We feel sympathy for the characters - not empathy. We feel admiration for their achievements - not pride. The distinctions are slight, but they make all the difference.

The film also has its share of weaknesses. The exposition takes far longer than necessary and dwells far too long on the rather dreary hardships faced by the POWs. There's a fine line between providing adequate background and rambling on about unimportant details - a line which The Great Raid crosses around the 90 minute mark.

One of the chief culprits here is the touching but largely unnecessary love story between a dying POW (played by Joseph Fiennes) and a plucky American nurse (Connie Nielsen). It could easily have been cut in half without losing any impact

Another disappointment is the simplistic and hackneyed portrayal of the Japanese as the evil (with a capital E) oppressors of the poor, innocent Yanks. In an otherwise rational and even handed film this misrepresentation rings especially hollow.

These weaknesses are balanced by strengths like decent acting, clear and uncluttered cinematography and sure-footed directing. The film's production team deserves particular praise. They managed to bring together the particular mix of cast, crew and location that allowed Director John Dahl to so faithfully recreate the events of January 30, 1945.

In the context of drawn out and seemingly pointless conflicts like Vietnam and Iraq The Great Raid may seem like a throwback to the gung-ho films of the '50s and '60s. Modern popular culture has taught us that war doesn't mean anything - that people are thrust into it unwillingly and without any purpose. What The Great Raid reminds us of is a time when war did mean something - not glory or bravery, but duty and purpose. It reminds us that once people fought for something higher than an ideal or a political belief - they fought for each other.

- Alistair Fairweather

The Great Raid is the kind of old fashioned, no nonsense war movie where the bullets are real and the blood doesn't spray.

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