John Dahl is the last director I would have expected to have been behind The Great Raid, Hollywood’s homage to one of the most heroic and least well-known stories of World War II — the rescue of 510 American and British prisoners from a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. None of his prior films had any connection with war or the military, and he didn’t have a lot of experience with big “action” sequences.
Of course when Miramax makes a movie; logic is not always involved in the choices being made, so why not Dahl? What might have seemed a suspect choice before shooting began, the final result shows Dahl was the right person for the job.
The Great Raid is based on not one, but two books that chronicle the true story of the rescue of the 500 plus survivors of the Bataan death march who ended up at the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan. They had to be rescued because the Japanese government had ordered they be murdered before the Allies could free them from the POW camp. When the Allied forces commanded by Generals Douglas MacArthur and Walter Kreuger landed on Luzon there was a strong possibility the POWs might be liberated, so the order to kill them was about to be implemented. When General Kreuger learned of this, he ordered a rescue mission be planned and carried out.
The Great Raid begins by saying it was “Inspired by true events” and gives a bit of a history lesson. It remains fairly faithful to the actual history of the rescue itself. Benjamin Bratt plays the real-life officer who commanded the battalion that was given this mission, Lt. Col Henry Mucci, commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion. Bratt bears a strong resemblance to the man who he gives a fairly accurate portrayal of. Colonel Mucci was a man who could motivate his soldiers in spite of daunting odds and overwhelming obstacles. James Franco portrays Captain Robert Prince. Prince was a non-career officer who wanted nothing more than for the war to end so he can go home to his wife. In spite of that desire, he planned and lead one of the most daring and successful military rescue operations in the history of warfare. 121 Rangers, aided by several hundred Philippino guerilla soldiers carried out the operation. They suffered only two American and 21 Philippino casualties while rescuing every single prisoner in the camp and killing over 800 Japanese soldiers in the process.
We see the planning of and then the carrying out of this operation, done in spite of required changes made on the fly, and some nice additions made in the field that enhance the plan, while inside the camp we witness the horrific conditions the prisoners are forced to live under. Acts of bravery under fire and the military genius of the planning of this operation are demonstrated as the invaders quickly overwhelm and destroy the camp’s guard force, which fights to the very last man.
Connie Nielsen gives a strong performance as Margaret Utinsky, an American nurse in the Philippines at the time. She was helping the Filipino Resistance in supplying medicines and food to the prisoners at Cabanatuan.
Unlike modern techno-war films where we see the wizardry of weaponry, smart-bombs, fuel-air-explosives, this is war fought in the old style, mano-a-mano. The Great Raid is the kind of war movie that John Wayne used to make (not counting that propaganda statement entitled The Green Berets or the kind of war that George C. Scott’s Patton talked at length about throughout that masterpiece.
Dahl’s work deserved better than to sit on a shelf for two years and it deserves more than a limited, poorly-timed release. It is worth seeing.