War films usually depict the savagery of combat with a high degree of realism, but fail to show the extraordinary amount of detail and planning invested in a successful mission. The Great Raid avoids the trap of melodrama and overblown action scenes by focusing completely on the mission itself. It is a methodical retelling of the liberation of 500 American POW’s from the infamous Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines. It is a sad and thrilling story all at once. The suffering of those at the mercy of the Japanese is deplorable, but the rescue of the soldiers is a triumph well executed. Director John Dahl skillfully builds tension while lacing the story with intricate details.
We see the raid from three different points of view that intertwine throughout the film. Benjamin Bratt stars as Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, the man that led the rescue operation. His story is narrated by his second-in-command and battle planner, Captain Prince (James Franco). The men inside the prison camp are under the command of Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes). They are broken and starving, hideously mistreated by the cruel Japanese guards. Their only salvation is the smuggled food and medicine they receive from the Filipino underground. Connie Nielsen costars as Margaret Utinsky, the lost love of Major Gibson, who puts herself at great risk by procuring the supplies for the men in the camp.
The film is quite gritty, painting a terrible picture of war and the suffering it causes. It does this without much fanfare. That is the reality of the situation and it presents it as a hard fact. Joseph Fiennes, in another superb performance, steals the film as Major Gibson. He simply withers away on screen. He struggles to fight the debilitating effects of malaria while trying to hold his men together at the same time. The Japanese guards are merciless and it’s up to the men to look out for each other. The scenes in the camp are especially moving as we see the men do whatever it takes to cling to life.
The biggest surprise of The Great Raid is the clever use of montages to fill in the back story. Black and white footage from the war is cut to relay information about particular events and people. It adds a great deal of believability. The story takes on a more urgent tone as we are constantly reminded that this actually happened and people died to pull it off. Once again, director John Dahl deserves a great deal of praise for his approach. It requires the audience to invest more emotionally when presented with actual film of the real people.
The Great Raid is not a popcorn action film. There aren’t explosions and battle scenes every ten minutes. People walking into the theater expecting to see “Saving Private Ryan” are bound to be disappointed. This film is completely different in its approach. That is probably the reason why Miramax has had it on the shelf for three years. Originally titled “Ghost Soldiers”, the film was completed in November of 2002. They made a huge mistake not releasing it sooner. The Great Raid is a good film and is worth spending your money to see.