One of the most common errors in war movies is to make special operations look easy. Gaining access to prison camp, headquarters, or other guarded facility is a simple matter of sneaking up on it and killing or knocking out the guard. The heros invariably know everything about the layout and security of the target as they have been told these things by the brave resistance fighters. In a World War II commando movie, which Hollywood used to churn out on a regular basis, the heros can dress up in Nazi uniforms and Heil Hitler their way past the idiotic guards without even bothering to dispose of them.
The Great Raid is a far cry from the standard issue commando movie. Based on two books, “the Great Raid on Cabanatuan” by William B Breur, and “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides, it tells the story of one of the greatest feats in the history of special operations, the rescue of 511 American POWs from the Japanese camp at Cabanatuan in 1945.
Director John Dahl opens the movie with a brief history lesson in explaining the fall of the Philippines to a modern audience that can’t be assumed to know anything about it. (He also stages a horrifying scene of Japanese soldiers burning prisoners alive. One wonders if Miramax sat on this movie for months out of concerns about political correctness.) After that, the movie takes up multiple storylines about the POWs, the Rangers sent to save them, and an underground cell led by a nurse named Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) smuggling medicine to the sick and dying prisoners.
This is easily the weakest of the movie’s storylines, in part because the writers have chosen to embellish it with an almost certainly fictitious romance between Nielsen and the senior POW, Major Gibson. (Ably played by Joseph Fiennes.) At times, it threatens to bog the movie down. But at least it does bring home to the audience how truly harrowing any form of resistance work could be. These characters clearly live with the knowledge that at any moment they could be betrayed, taken up by the Japanese, or simply robbed and murdered by the black market types with whom they must deal.
But it is rescue of the POWs that is at the center of the movie, and here Dahl delivers a strong payoff. Lieutenant Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Price (James Franco) must march their Rangers into the jungle, approach the camp unobserved across hundreds of yards of open ground, and swiftly defeat a powerful enemy force. Because the challenges faced by Bratt and Franco are real, they aren’t going to be solved by scriptwriting gimmicks and phoney cinema heroics. Dahl greatest achievement in this movie is to show the audience how, in war, even simple things like crossing a road can become major obstacles. (The road in question being clogged with retreating Japanese troops.) They must also figure out how to move men too weak from starvation and disease to walk, and how to keep Japanese reinforcements from interfering. In far too many war movies, such problems are simply glossed over, because the heros are assumed to be an elite force. In The Great Raid, the troops display their elite qualities by solving the real problems of carrying out a complex and difficult mission while the audience is watching.
The actual raid on the camp is very well choreographed. A nerve wracking low crawl over open ground precedes a startling, thunderous assault. Dahl’s battle scenes are credible because he keeps his heroics and pyrotechnics on a tight leash. Weaponcraft, uniforms, and equipment are all quite good, and include some believable looking Japanese tanks. Dahl manages to imbue the actual raid with a real sense of shock and violent execution, giving a sense of what it was like to be on the wrong end of a surprise Ranger assault.
The Great Raid has its flaws but they’re mostly forgivable. The romance simply doesn’t work, Franco’s narration is a distraction, and the first half of the movie moves at too slow a pace. Several scenes appear to be inserted as filler to take up time before the raid itself gets underway, including the occasional clashes between Bratt and Franco. Some technical errors are in evidence, including the old Hollywood favorite of having characters engage in needless dialog while moving through the jungle when strict noise discipline would be mandatory. In spite of this, The Great Raid succeeds as both history and entertainment. It’s the best war movie released so far this year.