16. August 2005 · Comments Off on Movie Review: “The Great Raid” · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not, Military, That's Entertainment!

The Great Raid is a solidly old-fashioned kind of war movie, of the workmanlike sort made during or in the two decades immediately after World War II. Whether you like it or not depends very largely on whether you see this old-fashioned quality as a good thing or a bad thing.

Three linked stories are competently woven together, all taking place over 5 days in January, 1945, as the Japanese occupation of the Philippines comes to a final bloody end. The threads of the story come together at the POW camp at Cabanatuan, where the last five hundred or so ragged survivors of the Bataan Death March, and the siege of Corrigidor wait for death or liberation. Cabanatuan was the central holding camp for POWs in the Philippines, and by this time the fitter and healthier prisoners had been moved to other camps or to Japan for forced labor. Those left are sick, crippled, starving, many barely able to stand, mentally gone somewhere far beyond despair. They are afraid they have been forgotten by the outside world, but they have not been. In Manila, a Catholic nurse named Margaret Utinsky runs a small underground circle which smuggles desperately needed drugs into the Cabanatuan camp. Margaret, although the widow of an American Army officer, holds a passport from a neutral country and manages to stay at liberty and ahead of the Japanese secret police – for a while. The man she loves is in Cabanatuan, desperately ill with malaria. As the Japanese control over the Philippines begins to waver, he and the other prisoners are in danger of being murdered outright.

A massacre of American POWs at another camp sets the third story in motion; a hit and run raid on the Cabanatuan camp to free the POWs there, and spirit them to safety. The liberators will have to walk the last thirty miles, avoid any encounters with the Japanese forces, and pull it off with no rehearsals. The job falls to 120 picked men from the 6th Ranger Battalion, and their bombastic and colorful commander, Col. Henry Mucci. In turn, Col. Mucci assigns one of his company commanders, Capt. Robert Prince to come up with a plan to hit the camp, and to come up with it in 24 hours. Refining the plan, getting information about the camp, doing reconnaissance on the spot, coming up with a means of transporting the sick and unfit to safety, distracting the Japanese guards— it’s all done on the fly, over the next four days, working in concert with two separate Filipino guerilla organizations.

The elements of the actual raid is the most interesting and seemingly the most carefully recreated, a scheme of meticulously organized chaos— counting down to the last minutes as the Rangers carefully take up positions in the dark, just outside camp, and the Filipino guerillas prepare to block access on the road to either side. The moment when they open up is quite jolting, as it follows on fifteen or so minutes of quiet whispers, and the scuffling sounds of men crawling through the weeds. I think I would have rather seen more of the planning of it, rather than the doomed romance, which seems rather jammed in as an afterthought, and a contrivance. I did think it a little odd— since one of the keys to operating a successful underground organization is to be physically ordinary and persistently unnoticeable— that they could cast a dishwater blond actress who stands a head and a half taller than everyone else, as an underground operative in an Oriental country.

Otherwise, the attention given to the Philippine underground, and the guerillas out in the country was very appropriate, and much overdue in movies of this sort. The cast is a solid ensemble, turning in respectable performances; the lack of star power being somewhat of an advantage here. (Only three of the leads: Benjamin Bratt, Connie Nielson and Joseph Fiennes are anyone that I have ever heard of, or noticed in a movie before.) The director and producers also hired Dale Dye as their military advisor, and would appear to have paid attention to him, although I am sure that William or any other enthusiastic experts will find small flaws and discrepancies in uniforms, weapons and vehicles. There was also a quiet, unobtrusive nod paid to religious beliefs, which I rather appreciated— another old-fashioned note. And the brutality of the Japanese forces in their treatment of POWs and Filipinos was not softened, or played down in the interests of political correctness; I doubt The Great Raid will play well in Japan, but it will go over splendidly in the Philippines. And if you see it, stay for the closing credits: it opens with what looks like contemporary black and white newsreel footage of the fall of Bataan, the Death March— and closes with the arrival of the transport ship carrying the survivors to a cheering crowd in San Francisco.

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