|Great Raid, The (Director's Cut)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 20 December 2005|
Miramax has given “The Great Raid” first-class treatment on DVD. The two-disc set is laden with extras, including an especially good documentary called “The Ghosts of Bataan.” There’s a commentary track with the director, producer and others closely involved. A timeline of the war in the Pacific, which includes several historical facts likely to surprise most viewers, is included on the second disc.
All this for a second-rate movie completed in 2002 but unreleased until 2005. Some of the actors may have thought they imagined the whole trip to Australia, where the film was shot.
The basic idea must have seemed very appealing: the most successful rescue operation in U.S. military history, a coup that went so smoothly that hundreds of prisoners of war were rescued without a single fatality among them, and only two deaths among the rescue team. A team of Army Rangers went behind Japanese lines in the Philippines, heading for Cabanatuan, a prisoner of war camp. It was largely a symbolic act of little or no strategic importance, but it was a triumph.
Which is one of the problems with “The Great Raid.” It’s like the railroad song Shel Silverstein wrote, four lines about a train that made it on time and didn’t crash. There’s simply very little conflict here. A love story between a malarian-ridden prisoner played by Joseph Fiennes and a nurse in Manila played by Connie Nielsen is uncomfortably shoehorned into the story. Margaret Utinsky, the nurse played by Nielsen, was a real person and a true heroine of the Pacific theater of war; her story might make a good movie on its own. But she’s extraneous here.
The Rangers are led by Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Prince (James Franco); there’s a slight conflict between them, and a throwaway subplot about Prince suffering from jungle rot on his feet. Again, both are real people, and Prince himself is among those interviewed in the “Veterans remember” feature on disc 2. But they aren’t compelling characters.
John Dahl directed; he’s only occasionally shown real talent in the past; he’s a journeyman director, competent enough but uninspired, and he’s made an uninspired movie. Some people will enjoy it simply because it depicts a military action realistically and clearly. There’s some brutality; as Capt. Dale Dye, the military advisor (and actor) points out, the Japanese believed in the Code of Bushido, the way of the warrior. By that rigid set of rules, a samurai was never taken prisoner as that was shameful. So those in charge of prisoners of war often brutalized those in the camps—by being captured, or even surrendering, they had made themselves less than human, and could be treated accordingly. This aspect of the movie is the most interesting and involving element, but it’s a side issue.
It’s true that World War II movies have largely dealt with the war in Europe, partly because it was fought mostly on land by individuals, and could be easily depicted by just driving a few miles from Hollywood. The Pacific theater of war was scattered across hundreds of islands, large and small, involved huge ships and lots of planes, and moved inch by inch across exotic terrain in hard-fought battles.
The supplementary material is more interesting than the movie itself. “The Ghosts of Bataan” is an hour-long documentary on the fall of the Philippines, MacArthur’s vow to return, and the Bataan Death March when thousands of U.S. and Philippine soldiers were forced to walk across the island in withering heat and humidity. As seen in the Veterans-remember section, surviving veterans are still bitter over the U.S.’s decision, forced by circumstance, to first concentrate on the European war, and for the time being, to allow the Philippines to fall into Japanese hands.
` Writer Hampton Sides gives a little more background in another documentary. There are two unnecessary shorts about the “boot camp” Dale Dye established for the actors. A modestly interesting demonstration of how the intricate sound track was put together is also included. Did you know that as early as 1927, Japan was planning a war on the United States? That’s among the surprising details included in the “Time Line.” The disc concludes with a long dedication to prisoners of war who died in the Bataan Death March and in the POW camps. A deleted scene section shows only why the scenes were deleted, although one in particular, an action scene with Margaret Utinsky, is so preposterous that it’s amazing anyone thought it worth shooting in the first place.
“The Great Raid” will be of interest to World War 2 buffs and those fond of military movies, but to few others.