August 12, 2005
The Great RaidBy Thomas Lifson
I really wanted to like The Great Raid. As soon as the television ad campaign began almost two weeks ago, my appetite was whetted. There are a lot of us who are hungry to see the exploits of our military heroes, and this particular story of derring—do with a happy ending seemed to be targeted at the mammoth and underserved market niche of patriotic Americans who admire our military.
The very name of the film raises echoes of The Great Escape, a glorious action—filled classic. The actions scenes previewed in the commercials looked great. The director, John Dahl, is a favorite of mine for his neo—noir films The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, both of which featured memorable femmes fatales. Evidently, I thought to myself, Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax, for all their Hollywood politics, have seen a market opportunity and have taken it.
But I was disappointed. The film was competent, its subject matter enormously appealing and interesting, and the action scenes were vivid. Each element of the production was done very skillfully, in fact, and some scenes qualify as unforgettable. But it didn't leave me with the feeling that justice had been done to its subject matter.
Partly this was a matter of the storytelling ignoring the tremendous heroism of the Alamo Scouts. But on other levels, as well, the film didn't cohere into a satisfying whole. It felt as though it were put together by a committee. I have to wonder if marketing concerns dictated choices made in the storytelling and production. It was less a story than a product.
It was good product, as far as that goes. If you are not looking for catharsis, it is pretty OK. I think many people will like it. Don't get me wrong. But as art, it is an underachiever. Especially compared to the expectations which the marketing campaign raised.
The product roll—out included a nationwide sneak preview on over 700 screens last Saturday night. Somewhat provocatively, this was August 6th, the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the Hiroshima A—bomb. Such a marketing strategy is designed to encourage word of mouth promotion, as lovers of military action films attend the preview, and then recommend the film to their friends during the week.
At my local multiplex, there weren't that many military movie fans last Saturday at 7 PM. That's hardly surprising, since I live in Berkeley, and the local populace is a separate demographic, shall we say. Practically all of us at the sneak preview were guys by ourselves or with other guys.
There are three separate stories intercut. One is the story of the POWs at Cabanatuan POW Camp. Particular prominence is given to Major Gibson (Joesph Fiennes) who is dying and needs medicine. The second is the story of the Rangers from the 6th Ranger Battalion 30 miles away, behind the American lines, who were to comprise the larger part of the raid, in conjunction with the Alamo Scouts and Filipino Resistance. They are commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henri Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and led by Captain Robert Prince (James Franco). The third story concerns the Resistance mostly in Manila, which is smuggling medicine to POWs and providing intelligence for the raid.
The film quickly surprised me with its attention to the horrors of Japanese brutality to Filipinos, American POWs, and suspected members of the Resistance. Executions of kneeling victims by means of a close range shot through the back of the head were shown graphically and repeatedly. Other aspects of the brutality to POWs were also unforgettably portrayed. There are images in the back of my head that I really would rather not dwell on. In this sense, there was a huge emotional connection, possibly creating an unconscious desire of mine for a release that the film never quite delivered.
The extreme inhuman brutality of the Japanese cannot fail to call to mind the beheadings, bombings, and cruelty of the Islamofascists today. If anything, this implicit comparison further raises the stakes of the viewer in a satisfying dramatic cohesion and feeling of resolution. It is wonderful that the raid was such a success, of course, but the rest of the film didn't live up to the magnitude of the facts themselves.
The film also spends a considerable amount of time on a secondary plot revolving around Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), a real—life nurse in Manila who worked with the Filipino Resistance to get life—saving drugs to the POWs, many of whom were seriously ill after surviving the Bataan Death March. A substantial budget was devoted to the construction of sets and props to represent occupied Manila in 1945. This filming was done in Shanghai, which has a few neighborhoods constructed in the same period colonial architecture. Mostly, this was done fairly well.
The connection of this secondary plot to the primary plot is via a chaste unrequited romance between Nurse Utinsky, a widow of a POW, and POW Major Gibson. I didn't buy it for a second, and felt insulted that this plot device was inserted, presumably to appeal to the females dragged to the movie by their male compansions.
The battle scenes were vivid. In fact, according to a knowledgeable review on the Alamo Scouts website, they are exaggerated. There were no Japanese tanks present during the raid itself. But that doesn't stop the audience from seeing some tanks satisfyingly exploded by bazooka fire. Once again, product design considerations outweigh artistic and historic considerations.
The dialogue and acting were not, unfortunately, stellar. I suspect that too many hands were involved, and that nobody was able to integrate it. I wonder how the director really feels about the finished version? Maybe someday there will be a director's cut DVD and we can see.
The film ends with a montage using real newsreel and still photographs from the era, depicting the return home of the POWs and other GIs. You have to sit through the major credits as this unfolds, but it is well worthwhile. In fact, it was the most moving and emotionally satisfying aspect of the film. If you do go, be sure to sit through the first part of the credits.
If my expectations had been lower, I would have enjoyed the film much more. It wasn't a waste of time, and if the story appeals to you, you should go see it.
Thomas Lifson is the edtor and publisher of The American Thinker.