The film is a wonderful homage to the real-life players in this story, and the depiction of the Japanese is harsh but honest.
By BETSY PICKLE
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
"The Great Raid" takes a forgotten chapter from World War II and brings it vividly to life in a potent marriage of valuable history and deft filmmaking.
It's tempting to describe "The Great Raid" as the anti-"Pearl Harbor." While both films put their focus on the Pacific portion of World War II, "The Great Raid" avoids the bombast and glitz of "Pearl Harbor" and concentrates on telling a real story with realistic characters.
In fact, "The Great Raid" is based on actual events and people, with some license taken for dramatic purposes. However, director John Dahl's film builds so organically and with such nobility that it never goes over the top.
Struggle against odds
Narration and archival footage help set the stage for the tale, which takes place in the Philippines. More than 500 American and Allied troops who survived the early days of war with the Japanese, the Bataan Death March and nearly three years of imprisonment in a POW camp at Cabanatuan are in imminent danger of being executed by their captors as the Japanese retreat from Gen. MacArthur and U.S. forces returning to the Philippines.
Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) turns to young Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco) to devise a plan to rescue the POWs. Mucci's Rangers and Alamo Scouts will be ludicrously outnumbered -- about 100 to 1 -- and the POWs are sure to be slaughtered if the Japanese get wind of a U.S. approach.
The film slips seamlessly from the operations of Mucci and his men -- abetted by Filipino forces -- to the POWs, whose ranking officer, Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), is struggling with malaria. The prisoners' hardships and suffering are almost beyond belief.
The final piece in the triptych concerns the underground movement in Manila, where nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) and her comrades scheme to get medicine and hope to the POWs. Not coincidentally, Margaret and Gibson are acquainted.
It's hard to keep track of all of the soldiers, but enough characters stand out to give the audience emotional hooks. Bratt and Franco embody the everyday heroism of the Rangers. Nielsen gives a face to the international unity of the Allied cause.
Fiennes is outstanding as the frail but beloved officer whose integrity is emblematic of his time. Marton Csokas helps show the dangers of self-interest as Redding.
Using "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" by William B. Breuer and "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides as their source material, writers Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro have crafted a script that plays up the mindset of duty, sacrifice and esprit de corps. The film is a wonderful homage to the real-life players in this story, but it's also thoroughly involving in its own right. The depiction of the Japanese soldiers is harsh but honest.
Dahl establishes the mood and the stakes without waving the rah-rah flag. "The Great Raid" isn't the typical war film. It recognizes the power of its truth and doesn't shove histrionics into viewers' faces.