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The Great Raid

Movies | The World War II adventure sat on the shelf for nearly three years before it was finally released this month with very little publicity

Issue: "Beyond hate speech," Aug. 20, 2005

Go see this movie.

The Great Raid (rated R for strong war violence and brief language-more on this later) is almost certainly doomed to fail at the box office. The World War II adventure sat on the shelf for nearly three years before it was finally released this month with very little publicity from its studio, Miramax. (Miramax is dumping off projects left and right as founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein complete their messy exit from parent studio Disney.)

More importantly, The Great Raid is the type of film that just isn't made anymore. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a half dozen war films within the last 30 years that treat the American military with this sort of straightforward, uncynical respect. Needless to say, this won't win the film any respect from mainstream critics. Industry trade magazines have already been condescending and dismissive in their reviews. Variety described The Great Raid as "leaden and literal-minded," promising that the film "will bore all but the most nobly patriotic of [audiences]." The Hollywood Reporter complains that the film "substitutes stoic noble types for full-blooded individuals and history lesson for drama."

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So The Great Raid may be a hard film to find-but, boy, is it worth seeking out.

In 1942, the Philippines fell to Japan and, after General Douglas MacArthur's unwilling retreat, 70,000 Allied troops were left stranded on the Bataan peninsula. At the mercy of the Japanese, those who didn't die during the infamous Bataan Death March were left to rot away in prison camps. But by 1945, the tide of the war had turned and MacArthur was making good on his promise to return to Bataan.

MacArthur's inexorable advance created a devastating problem. The very POWs the Allied forces returned to liberate were likely to be brutally murdered as the campaign pushed forward. And so a daring scheme was devised, in which 121 Army Rangers would quickly and quietly move ahead of the main Allied forces to raid camp Cabanatuan, holding 511 POWs.

Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), a flamboyant leader who fiercely believed in his untested men, commanded the Rangers. A young Stanford ROTC captain named Robert Prince (James Franco) developed the plan for the raid, which required soldiers to slip miles behind enemy lines and somehow transport over 500 sick, wounded, and emaciated men to safety.

The Great Raid opens with black-and-white newsreel footage and gradually, almost imperceptibly, slips into color. The film's desaturated hues not only effectively communicate the era, but also nicely complement director John Dahl's straightforward approach to the story. The facts of the raid are remarkable, yet Hollywood rarely shows this kind of restraint from juicing up or revising history (as had earlier drafts of this script).

While cynical critics may chide Mr. Dahl for his very unhip "literal-mindedness," he has in fact created a film that stands shoulder to shoulder with other modern war classics like Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers. The Great Raid is remarkably free of political correctness: unabashedly admiring of the American soldier, critical of Japanese brutality, and-here's the real shocker-overtly appealing to an idealism that transcends the pathetically base motives assigned to soldiers in most modern war films. Making the film even less palatable to the cultural elite are the regular and respectful references to Christian (mostly Catholic in representation) faith.

Mr. Dahl and his screenwriters diverge from fact by creating a romance between a senior officer in the prison camp (Joseph Fiennes) and an American nurse (Connie Nielsen) working with the Filipino underground. This subplot doesn't always work as well as the rest of the film, but even here the romance has the feel of old Hollywood, where duty and honor sometimes conflict with passion.

The Great Raid does contain some disturbing war violence and occasionally salty language, but it's a very mild R (Miramax tried unsuccessfully to appeal the rating). One is tempted to think that if the film (and its violence) didn't have so much real-world resonance, it would easily have received that PG-13.

When you see The Great Raid, be sure to stay through the end credits. Mr. Dahl segues back to actual footage of Cabanatuan. You're unlikely to be as moved by anything on screen this year as by these final flickering, grainy, black-and-white images.

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