It wasn't a strategic mission . . . only a moral one. And the odds certainly could have been better. There were 250 Japanese soldiers stationed at the P.O.W. camp they were supposed to liberate, plus 1000 at a strategic bridge a half-mile away, and 10,000 more in the vicinity. But there were only 120 of them. If that wasn't enough, the camp was 30 miles deep inside enemy territory. Adding to the tension was a time factor as well. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had landed at Luzon and the U.S. was pushing across the Philippines to retake the island after suffering the worst defeat there in U.S. military history. The problem was that as the Americans advanced, the Japanese were destroying any evidence of possible war crimes, and that meant the wholesale slaughter of prisoners of war who had been starved and brutalized. One-hundred and fifty P.O.W.s had been burned alive earlier at the Palawan P.O.W. camp, and the brass were worried that the 500 some-odd prisoners at Canatuan would suffer the same fate . . . unless a team of highly trained commandos could move undetected behind enemy lines and make a lightning-quick strike.
Based on the books The Great Raid on Canatuan, by William J. Breuer, and Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, "The Great Raid" tells the story of the most successful rescue mission in the history of the U.S. military. I have to confess that before I saw this film, I wasn't even aware that such a raid took place. Maybe that's why the filmmakers used actual black-and-white footage at the beginning and end of this WWII saga showing the real people from the raid—to convince people like me that it actually happened. What's more amazing than anything is that the rescue was pulled off by the 6th Ranger Battalion, who were highly trained but untested in battle. The unit was composed largely of young men from rural areas, farmers whose only previous experience in the military was to tend livestock. Trained by Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and sent to complete an impossible mission in an impossible time frame, they only had five days before the advancing U.S. forces would prompt the Japanese to kill all the men in the camp.
Three narrative threads are woven together in this John Dahl production. The first involves Lt. Col. Mucci and the commanding officer he's been training to lead the Rangers into battle, Capt. Prince (James Franco). We see their preparations, we see their trepidations, and we see their reservations as they try to get their plan approved. A second thread follows the P.O.W.s at Canatuan, largely focusing on the camp's ranking officer, Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) and his right-hand man, Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas). We see the hardships the men endure, and the Japanese brutality. But it's perhaps the third thread that provides the most interest. Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) was married to an American, but he died and she's been working as a nurse at a Manila hospital. Working with others in the underground, she's also been risking her life to smuggle medicines into the P.O.W. camp. This third thread emphasizes the way things really work in wars. Much happens clandestinely, behind-the-scenes, with secret police and civilians needing to choose whether to protect themselves by being obedient to their occupiers or risk their lives by working to undermine the occupation.
The cameras break frequently to show us things happening simultaneously in each thread, and the juggling of the three plotlines is certainly skillful enough. At 131 minutes, though, the film feels long in spots . . . unless you remember that "The Bridge on the River Kwai" took 161 minutes to tell parallel stories of a Japanese P.O.W. camp which forced prisoners to build a bridge and the men whose mission it was to destroy that bridge. Admittedly, the 1957 Oscar-winner for Best Picture had more character development—or at least, more distinctive characters—but there were certainly leisurely sections devoted to narrative, especially Bill Holden's respite on R&R. And while the acting in "The Great Raid" isn't the same Oscar-winning quality as "Bridge," it's more than enough to make us believe, and the pacing is never so leisurely that you begin to become self-conscious of a scene going on interminably long.
There are some graphic moments, with shots of smoldering skulls in mass graves, so be warned that this unrated director's cut would probably pull down an R-rating. Some of the language can be pretty frank, too. When the P.O.W.s break into the locked area where their Red Cross rations had been stored and they poke holes in cans and start drinking, one of the men quips, "Feels like I'm suckin' on Rita Hayworth's tits." But for the most part, this feels so squeaky clean that it could be slapped on a recruitment poster. It also sends a religious message, with Lt. Col. Mucci ordering his men to attend chapel and pray. "I do not want any atheists on this raid . . . and no fakers, either."
Though the PR people try to sell this as a bi-cultural thing, the Filipino resistance fighters are reluctantly included in the raid. Where they were better integrated was the underground movement to funnel drugs into the camp. And I have to say that the most powerful moments of the film involve civilians, not soldiers or prisoners.
Video: The times when you really notice the 1080p High Definition (2.40:1 aspect ratio) picture are when there's vegetation in the foreground and middle distance—the bamboo groves, sugar cane fields, or forests that the soldiers have to quietly negotiate. Each tiny sapling or leaf-blade resonates with detail. Same with faces and hair. Not surprisingly, the moments when there seems to be less detail come in distant skies and hazy light. The big battle is fought at night, and so the higher level of detail will be most appreciated here. Great picture.
Audio: The back speakers really don't come alive as much as you'd expect. They're most active during Manila street scenes or battles The English 5.1 PCM uncompressed sound (48 kHz, 16-bit) is as very good, which, with other releases, is made all the more evident by listening to the English Dolby Digital 5.1 option. There's just a fullness of sound that the 6-channel option provides, with a rich bass and bright treble.
Extras: Without a doubt, the commentary by director John Dahl, producer Marty Katz, technical advisor Capt. Dale Dye, editor Scott Chestnut, and author Hampton Sides is one of the best group efforts I've heard. Usually the danger with a crowd like this is that it deteriorates into one-upmanship or starts to sound cacophonous, with people interrupting each other and no thoughts completely fleshed out. But there's polite turn-taking here, and no sense of needing to try hard to get a word in edgewise. There's a wealth of information here—far too much to talk about—and the guys keep talking even through the end credits. In fact, one of the most startling revelations comes in those final minutes of the film, when we learn that many of the Japanese soldiers used in the film weren't actors, but tourists visiting Australia, where, along with Shanghai, "The Great Raid" was filmed. Filmmakers said that the biggest problem they had with the Japanese was getting them to believe that their ancestors really did things like this. It took a Japanese historian to confirm the film's content for them, because we learn (it's hard to tell which man was speaking) that to this day, Japanese textbooks claim that Japan was invited into the Philippines to help protect the Filipinos and their land from the Americans. But we all tend to believe what our governments tell us, don't we?
Now, a few word about the Disney/Buena Vista packaging and other features. The familiar blue case comes with a center lock-flap, and an insert touting the new technology. There's a preview montage that shows clips of all the films that are apparently slated for release in the second and third waves of Buena Vista Blu-ray products. The second wave, scheduled for October 17, features "The Brothers Grimm," "Gone in 60 Seconds," "Dark Water," "Glory Road," and "The Haunted Mansion." Though a third-wave street date wasn't announced, clips on the preview also showed films which included "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Chicken Little," and "Pearl Harbor." As with most Blu-ray releases, the menus are jazzy.
Bottom Line: In many ways, "The Great Raid" adheres to the genre right down to the character types and before-battle thoughts, but it's also a curious combination of modern war tale in the manner of "Saving Private Ryan" and the kind of patriotic films that were made in the waning years of the war and in the Fifties. It has both a realistic sheen, and an element of idealistic flag-waving. "The Great Raid" isn't a perfect film, but it's an engaging one, and, at times, a powerful one.