- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

Were “The Great Raid” a portent of things to come from Miramax Films in the post-Weinstein era, then the suits at Disney would deserve a round of applause for dumping the brothers Bob and Harvey.

“The Great Raid,” which opens today in area theaters, is a World War II picture that acts like Vietnam never happened — or at least never infected our view of past and present conflicts — and the doctrine of moral equivalence never made it out of antiwar academia.

Set in the Japanese-run Cabanatuan prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines, the movie’s overarching ethos can be summed up thus: “The Japs fought a filthy war.”

The words are columnist Mark Steyn’s, who, in writing about the 60th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said the sentiment is “now so distasteful that use of it inevitably attracts noisy complaints about offensively racist characterizations.”

Mr. Steyn needs to see “The Great Raid” and its traumatic portrayals of sadistic Japanese militarism. American POWs are seen summarily executed (10 in a row, point-blank bullet to the back of the head), beaten and deprived of food and medicine as they’re exhausted by hard labor.

“The Great Raid’s” depiction of the systematic Japanese torture of American POWs makes Abu Ghraib look like Martha Stewart’s painful ankle bracelet.

Such atrocity scenes, dramatically searing as they are, also happen to be realistic: The Japanese treated American POWs worse than did the Nazis. And not just Americans: Witness the Chinese and South Korean howls of indignation when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine in 2003 to honor the country’s war dead.

In one particularly satisfying scene from “The Great Raid” — satisfying in the vicarious, I-would-never-really-hurt-anyone sense — the leader of a band of Filipino guerrillas surveys a pile of dead Japanese soldiers at the end of an intense firefight that resulted in the liberation of 500 American POWs. The smile on his face says, “Job well done. Miller time.”

There’s no “If it weren’t for this war, we’d be drinking Millers together.” No “Saving Private Ryan”-esque fatalism about “this godawful mess.” There’s just: The enemy who must be killed.

But here’s the thing. Bob and Harvey Weinstein chased after “The Great Raid” years before they were booted out of Disney’s corporate universe. As reported in The Washington Times by my colleague Gary Arnold, Miramax optioned one of the books on which the movie is based — 1994’s “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan: Rescuing the Doomed Ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor,” by William B. Breuer — and beat out other studios for the right to slap its name on director John Dahl’s finished product.

That would be the same Bob and Harvey who rescued Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” from Disney’s squelching last year. What gives?

What gives is that when it comes to World War II, Hollywood filmmakers like to get their jingo on. It’s the last, maybe the only, consistently “good” war in American movies, despite exceptions such as “Catch 22” and “Slaughterhouse-Five,” both of which were produced amid Vietnam-era malaise and national self-doubt.

The Civil War has had its moments, such as “Glory” and “Gettysburg,” but without the slavery narrative, it loses its aura of righteousness. No wonder 2003’s “Gods and Generals,” which consciously tried not to demonize the South, landed with a colossal thud. “Cold Mountain” appeared to question whether ending slavery was worth it, if it meant that Jude Law would never return to the arms of Nicole Kidman.

World War I has been a recurring cinematic symbol of the savagery and futility of war from “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) to “A Very Long Engagement (2004). Stanley Kubrick’s misery-in-the-trenches document “Paths of Glory” is a standout, with its hug-a-bear ending sequence of French soldiers getting all humid-eyed as a captured German girl sings a song in a cafe, a scene that also brought tears to Steven Spielberg’s pacifist eyes.

Korea had its “M*A*S*H.” Vietnam had its … Oliver Stone. The first Gulf War had its “Three Kings.”

Sure, Mel Gibson has made sympathetic movies about both the Revolutionary War (“The Patriot”) and Vietnam (“When We Were Soldiers” ), but he’s, well, Mel Gibson.

World War II is well-nigh unimpeachable in the movies, even if Mr. Spielberg had to construct a simpering human-interest side story to approve of it in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Something tells me Clint Eastwood, in his post-macho old age, is going to recover his sense of butt-kicking chauvinism for the forthcoming Iwo Jima epic “Flags of Our Fathers.” If he doesn’t, then someone will need to kindly remind him of the heroism he wrung from the comparatively picayune invasion of Grenada for 1986’s “Heartbreak Ridge.”

But don’t forget: This World War II exception made by today’s otherwise reflexively antiwar filmmakers has more to do with the unvarnished wickedness of the Axis powers than with any supposed goodness that’s inherent in America.

Lest we kid ourselves.

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