The title of John Dahl’s “The Great Raid” is probably intended as a counterpart to that of John Sturges’ classic “The Great Escape,” telling of a daring effort to rescue prisoners of war held in a Japanese camp in the Philippines during the closing days of World War II just as the earlier picture, also based on an historical event, had recounted a large-scale escape from a German POW camp. But there the similarities end. Sturges’ movie was fast-moving, exuberant, exciting, and full of rich, colorful characters. Dahl’s is painfully slow and earnest, more like a museum exhibit than a motion picture. It’s the sort of film that it’s easy to respect but hard to recommend, one that wants to honor the men who suffered so much during their internment but instead reduces their story to the status of a rather dry, dusty history lesson.
The actual operation was certainly an amazing one. In January, 1945, a group of 121 Army Rangers, aided by Filipino insurgents, launched a surprise assault on the Cabanatuan camp where the Japanese were holding more than five hundred U.S. POWs, the remnant of those who had surrendered at Bataan in 1942. The raid was successful in liberating all the prisoners with few American casualties–and probably prevented the summary execution of the men in the closing days of the war, as had occurred in at least one other camp.
Screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro and director John Dahl have certainly worked hard to hold fairly closely to the record, basing their narrative on two non-fiction books on the subject, one by William B. Breuer and another by Hampton Sides. That approach has both benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, it gives the story a sense of authenticity, particularly since in dealing with the raid itself the filmmakers opt to play down the melodramatics and stick to the facts. On the other, it makes for a very subdued film, particularly since Dahl and his actors choose to play their scenes without excessive emotion and at curiously deliberate speeds. And it sets out in even bolder relief those instances in which a decision was taken to depart from the actual story for dramatic effect. An invented subplot involving a chaste romance between an American resistance figure in Manila played by Connie Nielsen and the malaria-afflicted major (Joseph Fiennes) who’s the highest-ranking officer at Cabanatuan, for example, isn’t merely an unhappy descent into 1940s-style schmaltz but a dramatic miscalculation that detracts from the forcefulness of the central mission. The line between complete fidelity to the record and a narrative that will grab and hold an audience is a difficult one to walk, and “The Great Raid” doesn’t consistently manage the trick.
Nor is the execution as confident as one might wish. Dahl may be personally interested in the material as a result of his family background, but his strength has always been in noirish flamboyance, and here, in shifting gears into a more serious, straightforward mode, his work seems sapped of energy and excitement. And naturally his approach affects his cast. Benjamin Bratt never manages to convey a really commanding presence as Lt. Col. Mucci, the head of the squad, and James Franco is even more restrained as Captain Prince, to whom he assigns the actual planning of the raid. Fiennes, meanwhile, suffers like a cousin of Camille in the prison-camp scenes; Marton Csokas, as his flippantly gruff right-hand man whose ill-timed escape attempt has an unfortunate effect, is more effective. One might well wonder at the depiction of the cruel Japanese major sent in to finish off the prisoners, who, as played by Motoki Kobayashi, is pretty much the stereotype of oriental cruelty–down to what has by now become the tired topos of showing him listening to a Mozart opera, apparently the definitive proof of a person’s cold-blooded villainy. Nielsen, meanwhile, wears her period frocks elegantly, but the sequence in which her character of resistance leader Margaret Utinsky is hauled in for questioning and tortured is like a ludicrous tidbit from an old movie serial in which the mistreated heroine’s lovingly coiffed hair is barely mussed. The rather pallid feel of the movie is accentuated by Peter Menzies, Jr.’s cinematography, which gives the widescreen images a constant green-brownish cast–suitable for a military story, perhaps, but not terribly invigorating.
One has to respect the dedication that lies behind “The Great Raid.” It’s just a pity that the dedication hasn’t translated into much more than a mediocre movie. It’s a telling sign of the picture’s failure that the documentary footage of Rangers and returnees shown over the closing credits is so much more resonant than what’s preceded it.