- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

“The Great Raid,” an admirably restrained and stirring account of a gallant and victorious World War II mission to rescue Allied POWs held by the Japanese, enhances the cinematic library of war classics that began to expand after the success of “Saving Private Ryan.”

In 1945, three years after an overpowering invasion of the Philippines, the Japanese army has begun a systematic retreat in northern Luzon, eluding head-on engagements with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s invading Sixth Army, which landed in early January.

Reports that the Japanese have killed prisoners at other POW camps stir anxiety about the Cabanatuan compound, where a remnant of about 500 survivors of the Allied surrender and the Bataan Death March in 1942 remains. Many are too reduced by illness and starvation to be ambulatory.

Feeling a special debt of honor to these abandoned soldiers, the American command authorizes a rescue attempt by a U.S. Ranger company that has to be improvised in a matter of days and carried out with as much stealth as possible. The Rangers must venture behind enemy lines, rendezvous with their own scouts and Filipino guerrillas (indispensable to operating effectively in the countryside) and carry out a night assault that devastates the Japanese troops while protecting the POWs.

Although the movie doesn’t draw immediate attention to the fact, the mission was accompanied by a crew of Signal Corps photographers. They weren’t permitted to shoot the battle, but generous footage from the aftermath, a long march back to American lines, with many prisoners being transported on carabao carts, was recorded. This stage provides the movie with a splendid finale, sustained by archival sources to a tumultuous homecoming in San Francisco.

During this inspired recessional, the filmmakers identify the real-life prototypes for co-stars Benjamin Bratt and James Franco, who elevate their careers with heroically irresistible performances as Col. Henry Mucci and Capt. Robert Prince, respectively the commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion and his choice to lead the raid.

In both pictorial and thematic respects, director John Dahl and his associates shift eloquently from fact to fiction at the outset and then from fiction to fact at the close. The movie’s color schemes are so expertly muted that they seem to emerge from a black-and-white time frame and then return to it.

“The Great Raid” advances on a three-track scenario that heightens suspense and human interest. It resolves all tensions with a superlative night battle sequence, ideally timed as a climactic highlight and brilliantly executed as movie combat spectacle.

Subplots set among the POWs at Cabanatuan and their civilian supporters in the Manila underground increase the dramatic stakes. The dominant figure in Manila is Connie Nielsen as a nurse named Margaret Utinsky.

Active in a smuggling ring that has supplied the camp with clandestine food and drugs for years, she is under surveillance by the Japanese counterespionage apparatus. For a time she’s also at the mercy of an agent called Yamada, given an impressive air of erotic sophistication and brutality by Gotaro Tsunashima.

Margaret is linked emotionally to Joseph Fiennes as the senior officer in the camp, Maj. Gibson, so close to death that personal threats by a commandant called Maj. Nagai (a memorably menacing Motoki Kobayashi), tend to glance off his skeletal figure. He is desperately afraid for his comrades, and with considerable justification.

One of the movie’s anti-revisionist merits is that it takes Japanese authority figures seriously as adversaries. The acknowledgement of the destructive capacity of the Japanese military is a useful reminder to latecomers who prefer to think of the Americans as warlords who got the U.S. into the conflict and then ended it in the Pacific by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The Great Raid” recaptures the battle-zone perspective that prevailed among American soldiers and pro-American civilians early in 1945.

Deprived of a timelier release last year when its production company and distributor, Miramax and Disney, respectively, got into a prolonged feud, “Raid” may still prove timely in certain respects. In any time frame, it should remain an honorable example of faithful and effective dramatization from the annals of World War II.

****

TITLE: “The Great Raid”

RATING: R (Graphic depictions of combat, torture and mass execution in a World War II setting)

CREDITS: Directed by John Dahl. Produced by Marty Katz. Screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and (uncredited) Hossein Amini, based on the books “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan: Rescuing the Doomed Ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor” by William B. Breuer and “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides. Cinematography by Peter Menzies, Jr. Production design by Bruno Rubeo. Costume design by Lizzy Gardiner. Editing by Pietro Scalia and Scott Chestnut. Music by Trevor Rabin

RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes

WEB SITE: www.greatraidthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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