Saturday, August 06, 2005

review - The Great Raid

2.5 / 5

Inspired by the true story about the greatest rescue mission ever undertaken by the US military, The Great Raid tells how 125 mostly novice troops from the 6th Ranger Battalion embarked upon a very dangerous journey to free about 500 US POWs, held in a Japanese prison camp, in the Philippines, in 1945. The Japanese policy regarding POWs at the time was to let no one escape, kill them all off and leave no trace, to eliminate war crime witnesses. At the time of the war, the Americans were more focused on stopping Hitler in Europe, but once that was under control, they turned their attention to the Pacific theatre and the Japanese. As the Americans began to make a foothold in the Philippines, the Japanese would attempt to massacre all their POWs.

In one of the opening scenes, we see groups of American soldiers herded into abandoned snipers nests. Drums of gasoline wee placed at the entrances to barricade them in but to also burn them alive. Anyone who managed to escape, while on fire, was machine gunned to death.

New intelligence told the military that there were 500 souls languishing in dire straits, for about three years now, in a POW camp, and they would be in jeopardy of being wiped out. Could a relatively small contingent of troops plan a resue mission, travel undetected and pull it all off? Being spotted by even one Japanese scout would jeopardize the entire mission as thousands of Japanese troops were nearby. The tentative Captain Prince, played by James Franco, was charged with drafting the rescue plan and leading the men in the field, under the supervision of LCol. Mucci. Mucci spoke to men about how they were the finest trained Rangers yet to see action, etc., and that their actions will either mark them well historically or they will be forgotten over time if they failed. He hoped that his pep talk could get a lot of heart out of the troops who had no combat experience.

There is a parallel story here about the Philipine underground resistance, working to smuggle medication into the camp. Nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) worked in one the cells. She was the former wife of an American officer, deceased, who fell in love with an American Maj, Maj Gibson (Joseph Fiennes.) Gibson ended up as prisoner at the camp and acted as the ranking officer for the POWs, and suffered terribly from life-threatening malaria. On one of the camp's shopping trips to the local market, in which they enlist the soldiers to replenish supplies (who knew?), Maj Gibson made contact with one of the Philippine underground to smuggle in some medicine, from Margaret. This is the film's only romance. Will it be spoiled by the Japanese military intelligence?

Meanwhile, the rag tag rescue party snuck their way towards the camp, evading the Japanese as best they could, although not without incident.

Is this like Saving Private Ryan, but on a larger scale? Yes and no. The aim, to rescue otherwise doomed POWs, is not unlike trying to save Pt. Ryan. Saving Private Ryan was a superior film, ironically, with a much stronger emotional impact, even though that film was about rescuing one person. Also, The Great Raid is not as good as the 1957 classic film Bridge on the River Kwai, which has similar subject matter.

By and large, the acting was very solid. I found it unfortunate that there wasn't enough character development of the rescue mission soldiers. Getting to know them a bit better would have increased my interest in their struggle. Joseph Fieness, honestly, was exceptionally miscast. He was dour and lifeless and just plain boring, showing not enough depth of humanity or emotion. Ironically, maybe he was too much like a real POW in that regard. Dale Dye is a name you may not be familiar with, but he shows up once again, playing a US military officer, this time in the form of General Kreuger. You'll recognize him when you see him.

At the end of the film, as the credits rolled against footage of POWs being liberated, ushered home on ships, reunited with loved ones and finally paraded in front of adoring crowds, the remaining audience sat in silence, absolutely transfixed by what they were watching. Some, I think, were likely thinking back to the war and their loved ones who participated. And the sacrifices never forgotten. No doubt, this film will stir deep feelings for some, particularly those who have loved ones fighting oversees. It's interesting to note that another film about LCol Mucci is apparently in the works - Ghost Soldiers, another Spielberg/ Tom Cruise effort, based on the book of the same name by author Hampton Sides.

The Great Raid has too many slow moving parts and not enough character development. No one person stood out as the protagonist. It's not the landmark film that it set out to be. The film was supposed to be released first in 2003, then in 2004, but it was delayed by the dissolution of the Disney-Miramax partnership. With the lack of advertising, I believe Miramax doesn't believe in this film. Opens August 12, 2005.

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