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August 21, 2005
Movie Review: The Great Raid

The First Mate and I decided that we would follow the recommendations of our friends in the blogosphere and see The Great Raid. The R-rated war film tells the largely-unknown story behind the raid on the Japanese POW camp near Cabanatuan in the Phillipines.

By January 1945, the Japanese had begun to understand that the war had mostly been lost. The American advance had finally included Luzon, and even the bushido code of the Japanese fighters could not withstand the American Marines and soldiers that clawed their way onto island after island, dismembering the vast Japanese empire that they had thought would never fall. In response, the Japanese started liquidating POW camps, afraid that their POW practices would get exposed, risking war-crimes trials for their entire leadership. The opening sequence shows 150 American POWs getting burned to death by a Japanese death squad charged with eliminating any witnesses to their atrocities.

This uncompromising look at Japanese cruelty to captured prisoners has caused several movie reviewers to pan the film as playing to stereotypes. Ebert and Roeper gave the film high marks, but as Scott Johnson and Hugh Hewitt noted, the New York Times' movie reviewer Stephen Holden pans the film for its authenticity:

The story meticulously re-enacts the against-all-odds liberation of 500 American prisoners of war from the heavily guarded Japanese camp at Cabanatuan, in the Philippines, by a band of untested American soldiers in January 1945. ...

Its scenes of torture and murder also unapologetically revive the uncomfortable stereotype of the Japanese soldier as a sadistic, slant-eyed fiend.

Unfortunately for the historically-challenged Gray Lady and Holden, this authenticity makes the film much more compelling than the typical Hollywood dodge of making POWs in Asia look like starving skeletons while portraying their captors as soulful philosophers conflicted about their duties. The movie has no problem pointing out that the Japanese filled the roles of bad guys quite nicely in real life, and for once a modern film decides to tell the truth about the Japanese treatment of POWs and the Filipino people during their brutal occupation of Luzon.

The film's slightly longer run time could hardly be noticed. The film maintained a gripping narrative and managed to avoid most of the pitfalls of war movies, such as the faux multiculturalism that usually shows up by assigning each man in the platoon a specific enthnicity. Fortunately, TGR shows instead the heroic actions of the Filipino resistance, both in a subplot in Manila and Cabanatuan and with guerilla fighters that played a key role in the success of the mission. This avoids the normally Americentric focus of Hollywood movies, taken to ridiculous heights by movies such as U-571, which blithely takes a WWII British intelligence mission and assigns it to an all-American naval crew instead.

Benjamin Bratt, James Franco (last seen in the Spiderman series of movies), and Max Martini do a splendid job as key members of the Army Rangers on their first commando mission, one which seems to have little chance of success. Connie Nielsen shines as an American nurse who assists the underground in smuggling medicine into the POW camp. Joseph Fiennes almost steals the film as Major David Gibson, the ranking officer of the POWs and one who knows his time is running out as malaria slowly eats away at his health.

The film depicts battle sequences in highly realistic terms, which gets the R rating. That isn't an accident, either; not just battle sequences but also executions by the Japanese trying their best to keep Manila in check while the Americans sweep across Luzon get graphic treatment. Don't go unless you can handle these heartbreaking sequences. If you can, you will see one of the best films of this year, and one likely to get overlooked by most of the film-going public.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 21, 2005 10:11 PM

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