John Dahl's businesslike war melodrama The Great Raid is old-fashioned to a fault, but should please fans of Audie Murphy and John Wayne. Inspired by a true story and adapted from two non-fiction books (William B. Breuer's The Great Raid on Cabanatuan and Hampton Sides's Ghost Soldiers), The Great Raid details five days in 1945, when a squad of Army Rangers set out to rescue the 500 POW survivors of the Bataan death march.
In Cabanatuan, a Japanese camp situated in the Philippines, the POWs are ailing and starving, but the Filipino underground makes dangerous attempts to smuggle medicine to them even as the Army plots their unlikely escape. Joseph Fiennes plays fictional, malaria-ridden Major Gibson involved in a noble, unconsummated, long-distance romance with real-life resistance agent Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen). Dahl should have saved us the warped history and focused on telling the truth in an interesting manner.
The truth comes with the architecture of the raid, a narrative agenda seasoned with too few personal details about Benjamin Bratt's Lt. Colonel Mucci and James Franco's Captain Prince, the latter also the film's narrator. "He's the reason I joined the Rangers," writes Prince of Mucci. "Now all we seem to do is butt heads." That's because you're becoming a man, my son! The actors do their best to keep it real, but lack (some by narrative necessity) the vigor to keep the film humming. The film proves to be only about character in the abstract sense—unfortunately, vivid idiosyncracy appears not to be in the playbook used by screenwriters Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro.
Okay, so The Great Raid is the hokiest war movie in the last 35 years (Pucci: "Nothing in our lives will ever be as important as this"). After a fictional romance and a lot of earnest talk, the film must eventually shut up and pay up. Bottom line: is the raid great? The answer is "yes," qualified by the film's unearned 132-minute running time. Dahl's longtime editor Scott Chestnut shares an editing credit with Oscar-winner Pietro Scalia, no doubt brought in by Harvey Weinstein to "fix" the patriotic but pokey picture.
[P.S. Many critics are grumbling over the timing of this patriotic movie and its depiction of monstrous Japanese soldiers. Unskeptical patriotism and racism are two subjects that deserve sensitive monitoring, but I wouldn't accuse The Great Raid of advertising current American policy or of dehumanizing the Japanese people.
Dahl depicts a rescue mission for American soldiers. Yes, it's carried out with heart and efficiency, but anyone construing the story as an endorsement of the current political scene is writing their own script. The film contextualizes ruthless Japanese-army behavior that's a matter of record, and Dahl includes a (token) shot of a Japanese soldier following orders, but visibly sickened by them.
The Great Raid may be misused by modern war-mongers, but this story of true heroism shouldn't be unduly transferred onto any other military action. Good soldiering is good soldiering, no matter when we revisit the story. If Dahl's film is to be damned, it should be damned by faint praise.]