“Intel just came through, sir. There are no Nazis in the Pacific.
I don’t know why we’re here.”
A band of brothers to save abandoned brothers. That’s the formula of “The Great Raid,” a WW II film taking place outside of Europe for a change. I can complain of movies with Nazis and the Holocaust aplenty and too few war stories from the Pacific. But get this, the movie industry might be simply reflecting the times. Why were thousands of American soldiers left behind in the Philippines? The US government deemed Europe more important than the Pacific.
“The Great Raid” tells its story from three fronts. There are the 500-plus POWs in the Cabanatuan camp – all survivors of the Bataan Death March. After three years of captivity, they are starving for food and reasons to keep on hoping. Among them is sickly Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) – whose love for a woman keeps him alive. This brings us to the second front. The aforementioned woman works with the Filipino Underground. She’s an American nurse named Margaret (Connie Nielsen) and she’s smuggling drugs under the noses of Japanese authorities. And lastly, there are the U.S. Army Rangers, under the command of Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt). Their mission is to slip into enemy territory and safely extract the POWs. Captain Prince (James Franco) has a plan, but it will be tricky. Their battalion is small and time is of the essence. With rumors of Americans returning, the getting-desperate Japanese are prepared to execute every prisoner.
I actually know the eventful rescue because I saw the PBS documentary “American Experience: Bataan Rescue,” which featured interviews of veterans and historians recalling the event. I was riveted. I found it incredible that it happened. I actually thought it would make a great movie. Lo and behold, “The Great Raid” invades the big screen. Well, the movie’s not that great but the story is still is. The screenplay missed out on a great opportunity. It left out some interesting stuff and added tedious fictional materials. And for a film that involves a great and intricate plan, director John Dahl could have used some visuals (map and arrows, at the very least) to enhance the viewer’s grasp. Drawing the plan on the sand doesn’t work for me. Sorry.
“Dear Margaret, The War is real. Our romance is not.
Fictionally yours, Major Gibson .”
While my disappointment is obvious, there’s much to recommend. The story needs to be known, the raid scene is phenomenal, and the ensemble cast, in general, is a trooper. James Franco as the thoughtful Captain is quite low-key, but the role rises dramatically when he admits something important. Joseph Fiennes is convincing as an emaciated POW. In comparison, Logan Marshall-Green (“The OC” and “24”) doesn’t look too haggard, but he’s blessed with very telling eyes. Cesar Montano commands a relevant presence as the leader of the Filipino guerillas. And the scene stealer of them all is Connie Nielsen. She doesn’t really need to be in the story, but her scenes are always crackling with intensity. The movie needed more moments like these to keep the film plodding until the thrilling final scene. I guess, unlike the actual raid, the movie had a mediocre plan (screenplay). And while the execution was successful, it’s nowhere close to the greatness of the events it’s based upon.
Grade: A generous B+
Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes, Marton Csokas, Logan Marshall-Green, Cesar Montano
Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro
Based on the books
The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William B. Breuer
Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides
Rated R for strong war violence and brief language