December 8, 2005 -- “The Great Raid” is a throwback to the war movies of the 1940s when the Japanese were portrayed as entirely evil and the Americans and their allies were entirely good. It is a black-and-white story of a brilliantly executed raid to rescue 500 American POWs wrapped with a flimsy cloth of anti-occupation spy intrigue and romance. It is “inspired by a true story.” The true story part of it works. The spy and romance stuff doesn't. Oddly enough, I watched this movie (on video) on Dec. 7, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The story takes place in the final months of World War II when U.S. forces were taking back the Phillippines in January, 1945. A U.S. Army Ranger unit which had not seen action for a while was given the difficult assignment of going 30 miles behind enemy lines to rescue 500 POWs being held by Japanese troops at the Cabanatuan POW camp. The film is based on two books, William B. Breuer's “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan” and Hampton Sides' “Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission.” The POWs in Cabanatuan were among the relatively few survivors of the “Bataan Death March.” They were part of one of the worst defeats in military history, one from which General Douglas McArthur escaped, but many others did not.
The film makes it clear that while promises were made (“I Shall Return,” McArthur famously said) nothing was done for three long years as the American prisoners were beaten, starved and murdered. Their numbers thinned and they lost hope of ever being rescued. The film also makes it clear that the Japanese intended to murder the POWs rather than allow them to be liberated by the Allies. The Japanese did not believe in surrender and had no respect for any soldier who did surrender. One scene from another POW camp shows prisoners being burned to death in an air raid shelter by their Japanese captors. The prisoners at Cabanatuan have an uneasy feeling when the Japanese tell them that the Americans will soon retake the Phillippines and they order the prisoners to dig air raid shelters.
The Rangers assigned to the daring rescue operation are aware of what is at stake. Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt of “Catwoman”) assigns his best man, Captain Prince (James Franco of “Spider-Man 2”) to plan and lead the raid, and accompanies the raiders himself. A key part of the plan is to keep the other Japanese troops in the area, more than a thousand, away from the camp while the POW rescue by 150 rangers is in progress. A bridge near the camp must be held in order to ensure the success of the raid. When more enemy troops are discovered near the camp, the plans for the raid have to be altered to enable additional rangers to attack the POW camp. This leaves the vital task of holding the bridge to Phillippine partisans. It turns out the partisans are underestimated by both the Japanese and the Americans.
The film does an excellent job of laying out the strategy of the raid. In a lot of war films it is hard to make sense of what you are seeing from a strategic point of view. In this film, the viewer is made to understand the lay of the land, the layout of the camp, and the mission of each group of soldiers in the operation. It all makes sense. The planning and execution of the raid are handled very well in the film. The subplots, however, are a major stumbling point in the movie. There is an underdeveloped romantic backstory between the POW Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes of “Shakespeare in Love”) and a beautiful nurse in Manilla, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen of “Basic”). Utinsky is a part of the underground resistance in the Phillippines. She helps smuggle medicine to the POWs. Gibson, who suffers from malaria, spends the whole film looking pained and wasting away. Fiennes is a fine actor, but this disease-ridden portrayal limits his range. The romantic backstory between Gibson and Utinsky is handled through dialogue. I think flashbacks are the better the way to go in this instance. It sure would have given Fiennes more room to act. Another aspect of the subplot has Utinsky trying to outwit a Japanese spy who is trying to destroy the Phillippine resistance movement.
The problem is that none of these subplots really work. If you are going to do a movie about the great raid, do it. If you want to do a movie about the Phillippine partisans, do it. If you want to do a movie about the Phillippine resistance movement, do it. Don't try to do all three at once, unless you are doing a three hour epic film and you've got the material to make it compelling. As a result of these decisions and others, the film never really builds any momentum until the raid gets under way. Once the raid gets going, the film is compelling. Before that, it is like trying to start a Ford in cold weather. It just doesn't want to get going. The story does have a ring of unvarnished truth to it, though. It takes shots at a number of people, including McArthur and President Franklin Roosevelt. It is also a good-looking film with elaborate sets and realistic-looking battle scenes, accompanied by a lot of pyrotechnics. This film rates a C+.
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