Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Great Raid (2005)

Director: John Dahl                                       Writers: Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro
Film Score: Trevor Rabin                               Cinematography: Peter Menzies Jr.
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Connie Nielsen

The two theaters of war during World War Two were incredibly different in terms of the context in which the fighting took place. Both were equally deadly, but there was something about the European settings, the villages and towns, the farmland and forests, that were vaguely familiar. The Pacific, by comparison, was barbaric, a jungle hell that contained a fanatical, alien enemy that almost defied comprehension. The Great Raid is another story of heroism from the Asian theater and the Philippines in in specific. While it might be hard to imagine that even more stories could still be coming out of the war, it was a war that engulfed the entire planet and so it shouldn’t be surprising that there still remain dozens of untold acts of heroism, this one no longer among them.

The story of the Pacific theater of operations during the war is certainly framed by Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese had a much larger plan than just that target. One of their other objectives was the Philippines, and after the crippling of the Pacific Fleet the Americans were unable to support the troops they had there. After MacArthur pulled out, all of the troops left on the islands were captured by the Japanese. But their captors were trained never to give up and so they were disgusted by the U.S. surrender. They took the prisoners on a forced march, the Bataan Death March, to kill off all the weak ones. The rest they kept in temporary prisoner of war camps, occasionally forcing entire camp populations into bomb shelters and burning them alive to show their contempt. When the U.S. returned a few years later, their overpowering of the Japanese on the islands precipitated a lot more mass killings, something the Americans wanted to avoid but couldn’t hold up the prosecution of the war to do anything about.

The Great Raid is the story of the U.S. military’s attempt to rescue 500 prisoners before the Japanese killed them. The senior officer in the camp is Joseph Fiennes. He has recently come down with malaria, and his other officers are trying to keep him alive until the rescue comes. They don’t know about the mission, but they do know the U.S. soldiers are on the islands and know that it’s just a matter of time. They manage to get medical supplies and some food through the underground working in Manilla. The woman in charge of helping the prisoners is Connie Nielson. She had apparently met Fiennes before the capture and he has since fallen in love with her. It’s the thing that keeps him alive. Meanwhile Benjamin Bratt has been put in charge of the raid, and he delegates the planning to James Franco.

It’s not a terribly exciting story in cinematic terms, but that is really one of its charms. For once it’s nice to see a U.S. military operation of incredible importance come off successfully. In fact, there were only two casualties while over five hundred soldiers were liberated. In addition, there is a wonderful sequence in which the Filipino soldiers are given a vital role in the rescue and they deliver. Ultimately, the film is character driven and in that respect it really is good. Many fans and critics say the film is overlong and boring, but I heartily disagree. All of the principal actors do a tremendous job and there is a lot of suspense as well as outrage in seeing the barbarity of the Japanese soldiers. John Dahl, who has exclusively done television work since, did a brilliant job with a straightforward story and has honored all who were involved in this great episode in American military history. The Great Raid is an important story that needed to be told, how fortunate then that it is also a moving and entertaining war film.

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