John Dahl’s film “The Great Raid,” which recounts a daring rescue mission undertaken by an elite group of Army Rangers in January, 1945, to free more than five hundred U.S. POWs–survivors of the Bataan Death March–being held at a Japanese internment camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines, is based on two non-fiction best-sellers, William B. Breuer’s “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan” and Hampton Sides’s “Ghost Soldiers.” Sides visited Dallas recently to attend a screening of the film for veterans who’d either endured the Death March or been part of the company that liberated Cabanatuan.
“I’d never heard of it before–I’d never heard of this rescue,” Sides said about what prompted him to write his book. “I lived in New Mexico, and I kept hearing about the Bataan Death March, because more people from New Mexico than from any other state were killed in the Death March–they took the entire National Guard of New Mexico and sent them over there as one unit. And so I kept wondering, what happened after that? Where did they go to? Where did they march them to, and what happened to them? I really don’t remember reading about this in college or high school. So I started [talking to the veterans] and hearing their stories, becoming fascinated with the human endurance aspect of what they went through, how they survived it. And then some of them [mentioned] the raid at Cabanatuan, saying it as if I should know what they were talking about. So I said, wow, that’s interesting.” He continued: “There’s an event each year called the Bataan Memorial Death March, held on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico–a military marathon, an endurance event, a tough marathon–and there was a guy from the original Bataan [March], seventy-nine years old, from El Paso, who was going to walk it–couldn’t run it, but he was going to walk it–to commemorate his buddies. And I decided to walk it with him and heard his war stories, and that’s what really inspired me the most. By the time we crossed the finish line together, twenty-six miles later, I said I’m going to quit my job and write a book. It’s that inspiring.”
Sides went on to spend three years researching and writing what came to be titled “Ghost Soldiers,” but though a good deal of it was spent in archives in the U.S., Japan and the Philippines, most involved interviews. “I decided to start with the men first,” he said, “and really try to capture their stories. That’s what I did first, try to find the guys and get their stories.” And as he did that, he honed in on a few of them. “I thought it was important for a narrative like this for me not necessarily to talk to so many, as rather to arrive at a few characters that you really talk to a lot and follow them through this experience, rather than cataloguing abuse after abuse after abuse–to follow this story through the eyes of just a handful of people. So really it’s more quality than quantity. Once I figured out who my characters were, it was a matter of going back to them over and over and over again and re-interviewing them.”
He continued: “When I wrote my book, it was published in May of 2001 as a hardback, and it was optioned that month by Universal Pictures–a competing company–to make a movie. They wrote a first draft of a screenplay, and Tom Cruise, it was announced in the Hollywood press that he was going to play the part of Col. Mucci, the guy that’s played by Benjamin Bratt. And Spielberg was attached to it, whatever that means, and it was on page one of Variety magazine, and it was the flavor of the month, and it was very exciting, and Cruise’s people were calling me… That sort of flushed Miramax out of the woodwork. They came forward and said no, we’re working on a project about the same thing. And there were some brief attempts to join forces, and the Hollywood suits couldn’t join forces on it. So in the end, if you know anything about Harvey Weinstein, he pretty much gets what he wants, and he wanted this movie, and so he won. And Cruise and Spielberg folded their tents. It was just about at that time that the rights to my book, the option had expired with Universal, so Miramax acquired the rights to my book. At that time I said, well, I’m interested in being part of the project, but Id like to see the script–because I’d seen the earlier version. In the early, early, early version of the script, the you had Robert Prince, Captain Prince, a named figure, a guy who’s still alive and well living in Seattle, Washington, they decided that he should die–they killed him. And we see Mucci doing the raid and almost singlehandedly killing, like, five hundred Japs, you know? And, of course, in fact he barely participated in the raid; he kind of observed and let Prince direct it. Dr. Fisher, the doctor who died of the shrapnel wound, they thought he should live! Why not? Because they needed somebody to operate on the other people. And Juan Pajota, the guerilla leader who’s depicted in the movie by Cesar Montano, in real life he lived for another twenty years or something, led an exciting life, but in their script he got killed. And I think it was like a dozen people taking on this whole prison camp–the ‘Dirty Dozen.’ And John Dahl, whose father fought in World War II in the Philippines, basically said, ‘I’m not going to get involved in this thing unless it’s accurate.’ And so they went back to square one and reworked it, and that’s the script that I read before I decided to come on board. And they had changed it to pretty much 85% of what it is now.”
Sides’ opinion of Dahl’s film is very positive. “It’s very accurate,” he said. “There are definitely some liberties taken, there’s definitely some compression–[that’s] probably the main thing. Things happen in the space of the five-day timeline that really took years to happen. Like the execution scene. That happened three times, at least that I know of, but it happened earlier in the captivity, not two days before they’re liberated. The other big license that was taken was the villain. There was a villain, the commandant of Palawan camp, whom the prisoners called–they never knew his real name–the Buzzard. He’s in the opening chapter of my book as well. As far as we know, that guy who liquidated those prisoners didn’t then go to Cabanatuan with gasoline and begin the process of liquidating those guys. That’s a fabrication, or a speculation. And near the end of the film there’s a mortar that the villain shoots off and kills Dr. Fisher. Well, there was a mortar that came from the back of the camp and killed Dr. Fisher almost exactly the way it’s depicted. But we can probably be sure it wasn’t the villain from Palawan [or] the highest-ranking officer. We don’t know who it was–he’s an anonymous Japanese soldier. Apart from that, it’s pretty damn accurate. Certainly all the main characters are accurately portrayed and say things that they either said or could have said. The worst thing is when you have a named historical figure saying things or doing things that he could not have done. It’s another thing to do what they do in a few places in ‘The Great Raid’-like the POWs are composite characters, they’re not real figures [though] they’re very realistic.” Another alteration involved the resistance figure Margaret Utinsky depicted in the film. “In my book I talk about a different underground figure…this fascinating, strange kind of exotic woman who invited Japanese officers to her club and tried to get them drunk and pray information out of them,” Sides explained. Then there was this other figure named Margaret Utinsky, who’s the figure depicted in the movie. Bill Breuer goes into her story. She’s pretty accurately depicted. The major difference with her is that she wasn’t as good-looking as Connie Nielsen [who plays her].” There was, however, another narrative difference in a long-distance, platonic romance between Utinsky and the character of Major Gibson, a prisoner in the camp played by Joseph Fiennes. “The love affair with Joseph Fiennes is concocted,” Sides said. “It’s not an intrusive love affair, but the reason that love affair is there is really to allow John Dahl to tell the story of the Manila underground, and it was very hard for him to develop it without any connection to the camp. I had some reservations about that whole tendency to want to do a whole love story. [But] they don’t pretend that it’s a documentary.”
Writing “Ghost Soldiers” had a great effect on him, Sides said. The fact that the book sold “unexpectedly well,” he observed, made him reasonably well-off: “Now I’m writing books full-time, which is what I’ve always dreamed of doing.” But the impact was mostly about the contact he made with the men. “History is a lot of things,” he said, “but above all it’s personal–it happens to people. I’m in awe of these guys–what they went through, and the grace and dignity [with which] they got through this experience. The part of this experience that’s most meaningful to me is the hours I spent with these guys. The extent to which they suffered and how little they complained about it is just a very humbling experience.”