Any similarity between the title of this World War II POW film and "The Great Escape" is purely intentional. Now, if only 2005's "The Great Raid" had boasted the same high degree of action, characterization, and humor as "The Great Escape," it might have gone somewhere.
As it is, this true-life adventure makes up for its rather stolid story line by being earnest to a fault. Which isn't such a bad idea, except that the movie never soars as it should. Given that the actual events depicted in the film are heroic and inspirational in the extreme, it's a shame the picture itself comes off as so old-fashioned and straightforward a melodrama.
I can best illustrate what I mean by "old-fashioned" by naming the movies I grew up with as a kid in the late forties and fifties in theaters and on TV. They were things like "Back to Bataan," "The Sands of Iwo Jima," "The Steel Helmet," and "A Walk in the Sun." They always starred either a studly hero or a group of distinctive personalities who came together like family; they always depicted a clear-cut and winnable mission; and they always made a pronounced separation between good guys and bad. "Saving Private Ryan" was in this mold, with a greater realism than possible in the old days.
"The Great Raid" follows the formula. The story may have been "inspired by true events," as the prologue notes, and the filmmakers may have gone to great lengths to obtain accuracy and authenticity in conveying the story, but it's still an old-fashioned rescue mission, nonetheless, filled with a typical band of recognizable personalities. The film's drawbacks are that without a John Wayne type in the lead, it must rely almost wholly on its "personalities," and they aren't quite distinct enough or compelling enough to sustain a fairly slow-going plot line; it makes the climactic raid, exciting though it is, a long time coming.
Still, the movie tells an amazing tale. Based on books by two authors, William B. Breur ("The Great Raid on Cabanatuan") and Hampton Sides ("Ghost Soldiers"), and directed by John Dahl ("Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction," "Joy Ride"), "The Great Raid" concerns a daring mission by a small group of American and Filipino soldiers in 1945 to rescue over 500 American POWs imprisoned by the Japanese for over three years on Bataan. These prisoners were among the last surviving members of the infamous "Bataan Death March," and most of them had been too sick for the Japanese to transport to other locations. The introduction tells us that by 1944 the Japanese high command had ordered the annihilation of all POWs without leaving a trace. It was imperative for the U.S. to rescue the men, or the Japanese would probably have killed them all.
The events of the movie take place over a five-day period, with narration and titles making it at times seem almost like a documentary. About 120 men of the 6th Ranger Battalion went in for the strike. Was it going to be easy? Hardly. There were over 30,000 Japanese soldiers in the vicinity of the Cabanatuan POW camp; there were some 800 guards at the camp; and the terrain surrounding the place was essentially flat and barren. As the American general says, it was a mission that appealed "more to the heart than the head."
The movie switches back and forth among three groups: (1) The Rangers, who are basically raw recruits with little or no combat experience; (2) an underground resistance movement in Manila; and (3) the POWs themselves. This makes for a long movie, over 130 minutes, and some awkward transitions, which ultimately prove its downfall. It tries to cover too much, and in doing so covers some of it superficially, especially the sequences involving the resistance movement.
Another weakness involves the cast, who do their best but never come across as individual and engaging enough characters. The star of the show, Benjamin Bratt, plays Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, the leader of the expedition. He's hard-nosed, impatient, and stubborn, and he speaks largely in clichés. I have no doubt the real man was actually this way, but he sounds too good to be true, particularly when he's telling his men he expects each of them to be in chapel the night before the mission, and he doesn't want any atheists on his team.
The film's narrator, Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco), is also the planner and co-leader of the raid. Prince is an intellectual, boy-next-door type, again almost stereotyped if he weren't a real person. Yet neither Franco nor Bratt conveys much charm or wit or personal identity. They seem generic; we never get close to them; and they become hard to care about.
The standout character is Major Daniel Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), the senior American officer in the POW camp, a man dying of malaria. Although Gibson is not in every scene, it is he the audience may remember the most, and it is he for whom we come to care. It's hard to forget his deep-felt love for his men and his deep-felt love for a nurse (Connie Nielsen) in Manila, secretly working for the underground and helping to smuggle medicine to the prisoners.
Probably the single greatest weakness in the film, though, is its pacing. It moves slowly and methodically, showing us the minutest particulars of every facet of the operation. There's more here than we need to know, given that up until its final third, the film contains very little action. Nevertheless, this is not to say that there aren't a few moving and/or gripping scenes along the way, especially one involving an escaped POW who is captured and brought back to the camp, as well as the scenes depicting the climactic raid; but such scenes are few and far between. Most of the time we're treated to characters who seem overly familiar and episodes that seem pulled from a hundred other war movies. The film even treats the Japanese as so many other war films have treated them--to the man either savage or corrupt. Well, as I mentioned above, you can't say the movie doesn't clearly identify the good guys and the bad.
Insofar as the "Unrated Director's Cut" is concerned, I could not tell what the filmmakers added or subtracted, having never seen the original, R-rated theatrical version. Buena Vista provide no clues in their scene selections, and the audio commentary does not appear to do so, either. There is no sex, nudity, or profanity in the film, so I can only guess that you might find a touch more blood and violence in the unrated cut. About the profanity, incidentally, this may be the only conflict in the annals of World War II where nary a single soldier utters a cuss word; it's an odd omission given the level of realism offered up everywhere else.
The epilogue tells us "The raid on Cabanatuan remains the most successful rescue mission in U.S. military history." It's a noble story, surely worth telling, but it overstays its welcome by a good half hour.
Most viewers will be pleased with the movie's video quality. Presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer that retains most of its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the picture is quite well defined, with excellent black levels to set off the rest of the images. The color is purposely washed out to a kind of monotone sepia shade, so one has to get used to this from the beginning. Then, there's a dark, glassy
look to much of the picture that does not always help in revealing inner detail; however, it is not severe, and it lends to the overall tone of the film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound conveys very deep bass and very wide dynamics, which in turn contribute to its powerful impact. The surrounds are never overused, but in their way they contribute greatly to the naturalism of the story, evident most strikingly during the battle scenes. Tanks rumble by and planes fly over convincingly. And there is a welcome sense of musical ambience in the rear speakers adding to the pleasure. One can also appreciate that while the sound is well spread out among the speakers, it is not always located precisely in one speaker or another but often between the speakers as well. This makes for an effective 360-degree sonic field that puts the listener squarely into the proceedings.
This special-edition, two-disc set begins with a feature commentary by director John Dahl, producer Marty Katz, technical advisor Captain Dale Dye, editor Scott Chestnut, and author Hampton Sides. They are almost as earnest as the movie and provide a wealth of information for anyone interested in warfare or filmmaking. Next, we get the featurette "The Price of Freedom: Making The Great Raid," about twenty minutes long and seeming a little obvious after watching the movie. It's followed by sixteen extended and deleted scenes, with optional director commentary, which last about twenty-three minutes total, and where you'll find more action and excitement than in much of the actual film, including a good deal more about nurse Utinsky. The first disc concludes with twenty-one scene selections and a chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; French subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the rest of the bonus items, the first and longest being a sixty-minute documentary, "The Ghosts of Bataan." It's a fullscreen work that chronicles the horrendous events of Bataan as told by former POWs, as well as former Japanese soldiers. It's a moving and well-researched tribute to a period of history that not too many people today know much about. Next, there is "The Veterans Remember," seven minutes of additional talk from POW survivors and World War II vets. And after that is a "History Lesson with Author Hampton Sides," fourteen minutes with the author, who tells us about America's involvement with the Philippines just before and during the War.
Moving on, we come to "Captain Dale Dye's Boot Camp," wherein the retired soldier who played a general in the film describes real-life training camp. Then, there are about three minutes of fun-and-games on the set in "Boot Camp Outtakes." Following the outtakes is a section called "Sound Design" that contains "Sound Mixing The Great Raid," ten minutes, and "The Mix Board," which provides six different sound elements that can be played separately or together in a final mix. Next-to-last is a "War in the Pacific Interactive Timeline," with audio clips by author Hampton Sides, covering the years 1927 to post 1945. Finally, there is a "Dedication to the Soldiers of Bataan," a four-minute listing of the names of Rangers, Scouts, and POWs at Cabanatuan.
I have to admit that a lot of the thrill I felt as a child watching soldiers kill one another has rather faded into the past. Yet I have no doubt that war buffs and history fans will love "The Great Raid." It's filled with the kind of minutia about military engagements that could fill the History Channel for a week. Ultimately, though, the film is too concerned with endless dialogue and peripheral circumstances and not vigorous enough in its characterizations or actions outside the actual raid to satisfy a casual bystander like me. For many viewers it may, in fact, be a long, hard slog to the end.