The Great Raid

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The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought America into World War II on December 7, 1941, crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet. As a result, the Japanese had no trouble taking every strategic outpost in the region, including the Philippines. Just months later, as the islands were being overrun, jut-jawed General Douglas MacArthur, trademark corncob pipe in hand, uttered his prophetic promise, “I shall return.�

What some might not remember about that historic moment was that, in retreat, MacArthur left behind an overmatched coalition of some 70,000 Yankee and Filipino troops who had no choice but to surrender soon after their leader’s departure. They were then put on the infamous Bataan Death March, a 65-mile trek in searing heat across a torrid peninsula, all without benefit of food or water.

Those beleaguered POWs who broke ranks in search of sustenance were shot, bayoneted or beheaded on the spot. All told, 15,000 soldiers died on their way to the detention camps and an even greater number perished while being interned there, whether from torture, dysentery, heat stroke or malnutrition. The Great Raid revisits the events surrounding the liberation of Cabanatuan, a camp at which 511 servicemen managed to survive till the time the Allies arrived early in 1945. The movie is based on two books, Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides and The Great Raid at Cabanatuan by William Breuer.

It stars Benjamin Bratt as Henry Mucci, the Lieutenant Colonel who led a brave band of Army Rangers on what is still considered the most successful rescue mission ever mounted by the U.S. Armed Forces. The supporting cast includes Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes, James Franco and Marton Csokas. The picture was directed by John Dahl, who in the past has met with critical-acclaim for such well-crafted, psychological thrillers as Rounders, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction. Here, Dahl has attempted to imbue a panoramic war saga with that same sort of intimacy, meeting with mixed results.

The upshot is an interminable war saga devoted to character development for the first two hours, before finally getting around to action sequences during the final fifteen minutes. The Great Raid unfolds as a cinematic soap opera of sorts, a tale of love set against the backdrop of a Japanese occupation about to end.

War widow Margaret Utinsky (Nielsen), who appears to be the only white woman walking around Manila, runs the underground resistance movement which has been smuggling medical supplies to the POWs at Cabanatuan. For her new beau, Major Gibson (Fiennes), is there, infected with malaria and kept alive only by quantities of quinine contraband and the hope of reuniting with her again. This sexy subplot is likely a pure fabrication intended to spice up what would otherwise amount to a cut-and-dry rescue operation.

So, while Lt. Mucci and company risk life and limb quietly crawling past the frontlines, deeper and deeper into enemy territory on their way to the camp, the film flits back and forth between the increasingly desperate plights of these two pining love birds. The intense focus on their improbable liaison ruins the depiction of a brilliant military maneuver which would have been better off left unembellished with amorous asides.

Instead of a tribute to a fine chapter in the annals of the Greatest Generation, we have a second-rate romance right out of a cheesy, pulp fiction novel. At least now we know why the release of this bomb was repeatedly rescheduled and delayed by Miramax from 2003 till the present.

Fair (1 star)
Rated R for periodic profanity and graphic war violence.
Running time: 132 minutes
Distributor: Miramax Films

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