John Dahl’s “The Great Raid” is a great story that, alas, just doesn’t translate well to screen. Also, it’s no surprise why the film did so poorly at the box office, and was actually shelved for years before finally seeing the light of day. As a film, “The Great Raid” no longer fits with today’s America , where millions rush to see a fat, overweight malcontent rant about the excesses of Americana , and young Americans believe the only cool thing left anymore is to piss and moan about how awful their country is, or has become. “The Great Raid” is a story of hope, salvation, and inspiration, and anyone under the age of 30, especially those educated at liberal-minded colleges, wouldn’t be caught dead paying money to see it. Which is unfortunate, because “The Great Raid” is a terrific movie that deserves to be seen and remembered, because it actually happened.
Directed by former indie darling John Dahl (“The Last Seduction”), “The Great Raid” tells the true story of the liberation of the Japanese prison camp Cabanatuan in the Philippines . A new, untested unit of Army Rangers, led by the stout Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), and captained by the stoic but tactically brilliant Captain Prince (James Franco), are given the task of rescuing over 500 American prisoners of war at Cabanatuan. With Macarthur’s forces quickly pushing into the Philippines , the Japanese have all but given up hope of holding the island nation, and orders are given to cleanse the camps. Mucci’s men must reach Cabanatuan before those orders are executed.
At over two hours, “The Great Raid” is frustrating in its gradual narrative. Based on not one, but two non-fiction books about the raid on Cabanatuan , the movie is devoid of war action until the last act, when the raid itself is finally carried out. Once the bullets fly, “The Great Raid” is as exciting as war movies come, but before then, there isn’t much to keep one’s attention. Dahl and screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro attempts to keep things interesting by intercutting between three different, but connected plot threads.
The first follows Mucci and his Rangers as they make steady progress behind enemy lines, eventually joining up with the local guerilla fighters, while the second mostly takes place in the Philippine city of Manila , the hub of active underground resistance against the Japanese occupation. Much of this is told through the eyes of American Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen, “Gladiator”), the wife of a former soldier who now works as a nurse smuggling medicine into Cabanatuan . The third is set in Cabanatuan itself, where Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) battles malaria and the prison’s Japanese commander in an attempt to keep his men’s morale high. The connection is that Mucci is trying to reach Cabanatuan , and Margaret, whose deceased husband used to be Gibson’s commanding officer, is trying to save Gibson. It’s not until the end that all three stories converge.
The fact that “The Great Raid” is based on America ‘s most successful rescue mission in history makes for good copy, but John Dahl, despite all his skills as a director, can’t quite pull the story off as a movie. Which doesn’t mean the film is a failure, because it’s quite good in its own, deliberate way. It’s just that “The Great Raid” doesn’t move as much as it crawls, and there is never any real sense of tension, or belief that Prince’s elaborate plan might not work. We know it’ll work, because the script has never given us any indication that things might go fubar when we least expect it. If anything, Dahl’s insistence on being faithful to history might have hindered the film. Then again, there’s something to be said for being true to the source material, and Dahl is certainly very true.
“The Great Raid” has a good, solid cast, led by a pipe smoking Benjamin Bratt and what should have been a starring turn by James Franco, most known for his “Spiderman” role. Franco’s Captain Prince is a serious young man doing important work, and the deliberateness with which he plans and breaks down the raid is quite thrilling to follow. Joseph Fiennes gives an equally good performance as the incarcerated Major pining for Margaret, but refusing to admit it. Marton Csokas, last seen badmouthing Muslims in “Kingdom of Heaven”, is refreshing as Captain Redding, a man as loose with his mouth as he is with his brain.
“The Great Raid” should be seen, if just to understand the extent the prisoners of Cabanatuan had to go through in order to simply survive. Admittedly, the way the film is told does not make for high drama, and for much of the film, one gets the sneaking suspicion someone had replaced a movie with an episode of the History Channel. Nevertheless, you owe it to yourself to see this movie, and remember what happened over 60 years ago. What was happening at Cabanatuan and other Japanese POW camps during World War II make Abu Ghraib look like Disneyland , and you should never, ever forget that.
John Dahl (director) / William B. Breuer (novel, The Great Raid on Cabanatuan), Hampton Sides (novel, Ghost Soldiers), Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro (screenplay)
CAST: Benjamin Bratt …. Lt. Colonel Mucci
James Franco …. Captain Prince
Joseph Fiennes …. Major Gibson
Marton Csokas …. Captain Redding
Connie Nielsen …. Margaret Utinsky