|The Great Raid (2005)
Starring: Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes, Mark Consuelos
Director: John Dahl
Apparently, the World War II movie genre, resurrected by “Saving Private Ryan,” is still viewed as a gold mine. Thus Miramax, eventually, releases “The Great Raid,” the “true” story of the 6th Ranger Battalion’s rescue of 500 American soldiers from a Japanese POW camp in 1945. Heralded as the most daring and successful rescue mission in U.S. history, the raid saw the return of nearly all of these soldiers alive, and brought honor and recognition to the Rangers who fought to free them. The movie reenactment was shelved for four years after 9/11, but has now seen the light of day, though that is more likely due to the Disney/Miramax divorce than anything else.
Starring Benjamin Bratt and James Franco, “The Great Raid” harkens back to the old-school World War II films your grandfather made you watch as a kid. The movie takes its time building up to the climactic battle and rescue, slowly (very, very slowly) developing the story and characters. Normally this would be fine, as the raid at the end is thrilling, but unfortunately the characters, so painstakingly cultivated, are dull as dirt thanks to the bland acting of Hollywood B-listers. Indeed, the most interesting character in the film, Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), is a POW dying of malaria that can barely walk or speak for half of the film.
Accompanying the raid storyline is that of Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), a nurse working with the Filipino underground to smuggle medicine to the POW’s. Although an interesting storyline, and one that effectively provides an emotional core for the film, the whole thing somehow reeks of Hollywood trying to push the obligatory romance into a story that was “inspired” by actual events. Whether said romance actually occurred or not, it is a lazy and overused storytelling device that only seems to steal the thunder from the men who performed the rescue, which is what this film is supposed to be about.
One expects a little more when Miramax and veteran indie director John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction”), get together. Nothing new is really brought to the film. In true war film cliché form, the Japanese in the film are demonized to an extraordinary degree, and provide little more than fodder for American gunfire. While the Japanese in the film are carefully limited to the notoriously ruthless secret military police that committed countless war crimes, one wonders if it was necessary, if not hypocritical, to bring this sordid aspect of Japanese history to attention on the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of American bombers.
Despite its flaws, the film could have been worse. Much worse, in fact. As mentioned, the actual raid, when it finally happens, is exciting and worth the wait. The fight involves everything from machine guns to bazookas to tanks, and is well organized and paced, but without feeling overly choreographed. The film also pays tribute to Filipino fighters who aided the Americans in the campaign, and thankfully leaves any flag-waving and patriotic exhortations one expects nowadays, alone for the most part. “The Great Raid” wisely sticks to simply delivering a heroic story that was ultimately worth telling.
Miramax’s two-disc collector’s edition of “The Great Raid” is a great example of how to successfully create the ideal DVD for a specific target audience. In terms of this film, Miramax has included extensive historical background on the U.S. military event, as well as the usual DVD features. The first disc of the set contains the film, along with an incredibly detailed feature commentary by director John Dahl, producer Marty Katz and more, as well as a 20-minute making-of documentary (“The Price of Freedom”) and 16 deleted/extended scenes with optional director commentary. The documentary is a nice introduction to those who don’t know much about the raid, but it feels awfully strange to include deleted scenes on a director’s cut of a film.
The second disc features a majority of the historical jibber jabber, including a 60-minute documentary on “The Ghosts of Bataan,” a survivor recount of the experience (“The Veterans Remember”), and a “History Lesson with Author Hampton Sides.” Also featured on disc two is a short featurette on Captain Dale Dye’s boot camp, as well as outtakes from the pre-production affair, two sound design featurettes, and an interactive “War in the Pacific” timeline. All in all, while the film didn’t receive much attention amidst all of the other summer blockbusters, the Unrated Director’s Cut, two-disc Collector’s Edition (phew) of “The Great Raid” is certainly worth checking out for history buffs, as well as any fan of great war movies.