By 1945, the survivors of the Bataan Death March, over 500 prisoners of war, awaited either liberation by General MacArthur’s troops or death at the hands of their Japanese captors in the notorious Cabanatuan prison camp. A daring group of American GIs, well-trained but untested, led by Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), take on the daunting task, against impossible odds, to save their imprisoned comrades in The Great Raid.”
Based on the books The Great Raid of Cabanatuan, by William B. Breuer, and Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, this is a story of survival, guts and heroism. In 1944, the Japanese high command decreed that all prisoners of war would be executed and began to implement that heinous plan. One of the last remaining prison camps in the Philippine Islands, at Cabanatuan, housed those captured three years before. These men were deemed too ill and malnourished to be of any use to their captors as slave laborers and were scheduled for execution by the Japanese secret police.
The American liberators landed in the Philippine Island and knew full well that the remaining prisoners would be massacred before army forces could reach the Cabanatuan camp. Colonel Mucci took on the task to lead his small group of 120 US soldiers and their Filipino allies behind enemy lines to do the impossible – free the 500 plus men before the Japanese murdered them all. Director John Dahl adapts this courageous tale and, with a bit of literary manipulation, tells the story of this little know feat of bravery and chutzpah.
The Great Raid” will find its audience, mainly, among history buffs, like me, who are familiar with this momentous event. Dahl and company have gone to impressive lengths to recreate the rescue mission in minute detail and, from a technical point of view, succeed. The attention to such details as the equipment, uniforms and weapons – the makers even came up with what really looks like a Japanese light tank – and the amazing rescue mission are pretty impressive. Unfortunately, the telling of this remarkable story is not given the same shrift as the technical details.
It seems, while watching “The Great Raid,” that all of the film’s energy was spent in making things look correct and accurate. But Dahl, who made “Rounders,” seems to have forgotten to elicit the performances from his actors to match his attention to detail. It’s not that the cast does a bad job. It’s just that the screenwriters, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, leave them adrift with characters that are bloodless and two-dimensional, at best, and more symbolic than real.
The story of “The Great Raid” is divided, pretty equally, into three parts, all of which use copious amounts of dialogue to set things up for the actual rescue mission of the film’s last third. One part shows things from the viewpoint of Col. Mucci and his men as they prepare to go behind enemy lines against vastly superior numbers of Japanese troops. Part two shows the plight of the prisoners as they tensely wait to be finished off by their captors. The third part is the fictional point of view of Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), a civilian nurse who stayed behind after the Japanese invasion, works for the Filipino underground resistance and is the lover of the camp’s ranking prisoner of war, Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes). The film jumps between these parts, setting us up for the impressively staged battle that is its climax.
The actors are hampered by the lack of character development but there are some small attempts to flesh out the players. Benjamin Bratt captures the cocky but capable arrogance of Col. Mucci as he deploys his forces carefully to outwit the enemy and affect the rescue. Joseph Fiennes, too, does a decent job as the commander of the prisoners, caring for his men even though his body is wracked by malaria and malnutrition. Too much time is spent on Margaret Utinsky’s story but Connie Nielsen does a capable job, nonetheless. The rest of the cast is little more than stick figures with one or two exceptions. Too much time is spent trying to give a human face to the Japanese soldiers while showing them only as sadistic killers.
The strength of “The Great Raid” lies in the production aspects rather than the acting. Production designer Bruno Rubeo captures the look and feel of this incredible story with amazing detail. I’m a stickler for authenticity in a war film and Rubeo’s team do things justice in every way. Cinematographer Peter Menzies capably lenses the film and is equal to the production, capturing the battle in such a way as to give it a tense you-are-there look. Costume designer Lizzie Gardner does a fine job clothing her wards in a realistic looking way.
The Great Raid” is a heartfelt film that accurately tells its story but lacks the emotional involvement to put it into the pantheon of great war films. The details are so well handled that I would have like to see what a defter director would have done with his/her cast and the material. As it is, the film will appeal to history, especially World War Two, buffs and fans of war dramas but few others. This could have been great but is only a little above mediocre. I give it a B-.Laura:
Watching the promising director of films that couldn't get theatrical respect ("Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction") finally get there and then tread water at best has been disappointing. So, the prospect of John Dahl doing something very different, helming an epic war film, was intriguing. "The Great Raid," which is about the most successful wartime rescue mission in history and which has been shelved by Miramax for two years, is not the film that will give Dahl his buzz back.
After beginning with an excessive voiceover history lesson that recounts the entire U.S. engagement in the Pacific during WWII, information which could have been conveyed much more cinematically and much more economically, Dahl plunks us down with what Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt, "Catwoman," "The Woodsman") describes as 'the best trained, least proven battalion' in the war. They're about to be tested by crossing enemy lines to rescue the 500 POWs at Cabanatuan prison camp, sole survivors of the 70,000 Bataan death marchers of two years earlier. Time is a precious commodity, as the Japanese have issued a "Kill All Policy" - a fact Dahl effectively puts across with a brief early scene of 150 POWs being burned alive at Palawan. The prisoners are also in danger of starving to death if they do not succumb first to diseases which can only be treated with drugs smuggled in via resistance fighters.
Screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, adapting both "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" by William B. Breuer and "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides, keep the action switching among four groups. In addition to the elite Rangers and Alamo scouts led by Mucci, there is the Filipino resistance which will aid them, the Cabanatuan POWs commanded by a deteriorating Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes, "The Merchant of Venice") and the brave nurse, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen, "Brothers"), who loves him and secretly fights with the resistance to keep him alive from war torn Manila.
However, except for brief flashes from the vaguely homoerotic relationship between Gibson and his best friend Captain 'Red' Redding (Marton Csokas, "Kingdom of Heaven") and a passionate performance from Filipino star Cesar Montano as resistance Captain Juan Pajota, the cast seem embalmed, as does most of the action. The promising young actor James Franco, "Spider-Man 2") drowns in earnestness as Mucci's right hand man Captain Prince. Few of the scenes set in Manila are convincing.
"The Great Raid" is laudable in its subject matter, but the stirring true story only rarely comes to life on the big screen. Per Robin, WWII buffs will admire the filmmakers' incredible accuracy, but the film is more logistical exercise and educational piece than the flesh and blood experience a good movie should be.
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