Great Raid, The (2005) *** 1/2
Directed by John Dahl. Written by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro from books "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" (by William B. Breuer) and "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides. A Miramax production by Bob & Harvey Weinstein and others. Photography, Peter Menzies. Editing, Scott Chestnut, Pietro Scalia. Production design, Bruno Rubeo. Music, Trevor Rabin. Cast: Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Robert Mammone, Connie Nielsen, Motoki Kobayashi and many others. 132 minutes. Rated R.
A very good film by John Dahl who in the 1990s surfaced as an ace director, especially of "noir" movies such as "Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction," "Unforgettable," "Rounders," etc.
"The Great Raid" (TGR from now on) was finished in 2003 but was shelved until now. The reason is that Miramax, its producer, was in the process of "divorcing" the Disney Company. Our wait was worth every minute of it. TGR joins the short list of top, based-on-fact movies about prisoners of war in World War II, such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai," and "The Great Escape." In some ways it surpasses them.
In January1945, 511 American soldiers who had survived the notorious, inhuman Bataan Death March in the Philippines that made fifteen thousand dead, were in their third year of incredible, horrifying suffering -in all possible ways-at the Cabanatuan camp. General MacArthur's armies were in the process of reconquering the Philippines. The Americans, now closing in on Cabanatuan, were conscious that the Japanese would execute all the POWs, so they sent the 8th (or is it 6th?) Ranger Battalion (some 120 strong, well-trained but inexperienced)to attack, in combination with Philippino members of the Resistance.
Oddly, this part of the War in the Pacific is known to very few nowadays, even though the tortures and executions by the Japanese military, of prisoners of any kind and nationality, is no secret.
The movie, shot and acted with realism and verisimilitude, is a nail-biter. I suppose that some experienced viewers may raise eyebrows at the invention of a bit of romance involving the part of Connie Nilsen who, in the movie as in real life was a heroic figure, but then a touch of imagination cannot spoil a great story. The film pulls no punches when it comes to Japanese violence and American bravery. Nit-picking is, in my opinion, not a good idea. My own criticisms are very few. Some more historical and geographic details would have been welcome. The perfect, accentless English of Motoki Kobayashi (as the camp's commandant)baffles me. (I guess he is an American). I also understand that the hellish Cabatuan included some British prisoners, yet, if some were shown in the film, I must have missed them.
Then there's the undeniable fact of prisoners in Japanese camps being just skin and bones, as proven by pictures of them taken after their liberation. The liberated victims looked much like those of Nazi death-camps. In the film, however, they U.S. soldiers are not -and cannot-be as skeletal as they really were. Those of us who are familiar with photos and documentary footage of say, Auschwitz, shot by the winners of W.W. II can tell the difference. Even so, the makers of "The Great Raid" went as far as possible in their depictions of human misery.
There is, in the Philippines, a memorial for the victims of the Cabatuan Camp and the Bataan Death March. Most of us are too far from it to visit it, but most of us ought to see the movie, learn and appreciate a major page of American history.
Curiously the movie surfaces from its shelves on the 60th anniversary of the A-bomb on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki-and a time when the U.S.A and Japan are best friends. Also at a time when Iran is displaying its nuclear capacities.
Oddly too, "The Great Raid" was shot -very well --in several Australian locations, with the Manilla City sequences shot in Shanghai, China.
Additionally-- and efficiently-- the movie makes fine use of archival sources in its lengthy opening sequences and its closing minutes.